Tuesday, February 03, 2009


As we were sitting around a campfire in the middle of the desert, watching the stars appearing one by one, one of our guides pointed over his shoulder and said, "Pakistan is that way."

"Really? How far is it?" someone asked.

"Less than five kilometers," he replied. 

The three of us on the safari looked at each other with a mixture of fascination and dread. Had we really ridden that far west from Jaisalmer these last two days? I hadn't bothered to even look closely at a map of Rajasthan before embarking on the safari, so I guessed it was possible.

"So, what are those lights?" I asked, pointing at a couple of sets, evenly spaced, in the direction of Pakistan.

"That's the border," he replied. "Should we take the camels there?"

After a slight pause, the other guide, the younger, more serious one said, "He's just joking. Pakistan is at least 90 kilometers away."

The first guide smiled. "They wouldn't allow us to come that close."

For the next hour, we chatted with these two men, mostly about their lives and their villages, but also about U.S. politics.

"George Bush just wanted India and Pakistan to go to war," the older one said, "because he wanted India to need America and then be under its control." He expressed hope that Obama would be different but adopted a measured "we'll see" attitude towards the new president.

For a complete outsider like me, the guides' lives in their small village fascinated me more than their take on world affairs. And they didn't mind talking, considering we were their customers. In 16 years of being a guide, the older man said, he had never had a group of Indian tourists. Only foreigners seemed interested.

Neither man had ever been more than 50 kilometers outside his place of birth. Neither had any interest in seeing what was out there. They lead simple lives, bound by tradition and caste, that they wouldn't change.

Much of their lifestyle baffles me, probably in the same way that my lifestyle baffles them. Though I might use words like "wrong" or "backwards" to describe some of their beliefs, at the same time I am drawn to their simplicity and respect for family and tradition. One such concept is marriage.

"He's getting married in six months," the older man, who was married with "only" five children, said about his younger partner. When his three customers congratulated him, the younger man said that the other one was joking again, that he wasn't getting married until sometime next year.

"Oh, but he has to listen to me because I'm older," the older one laughed. "So if I say six months, that is the way it is."

Officially, systems like caste and dowry are frowned upon; in small villages, they are alive and well.

In small villages of Rajasthan, when a son is ready for marriage, his parents make an arrangement with a neighbor or someone in a nearby village. But since they are taking their neighbor's daughter, the groom's family must provide a young girl to that family. If they don't have a daughter to exchange, they exchange a cousin or niece. The brides are "officially" 18, but the exchanged girls are often much younger.

The bride and groom meet each other for the first time on their wedding night. After that, the bride spends time alternating between her husband's home and her family home for several months until she is comfortable with her new arrangement.

Our guides said that there's no such thing as dowry; however, the bride's family spends a lifetime's savings on the wedding feast and on gifts for the bride's new home. What they cannot afford, they borrow from a moneylender and then spend another lifetime paying it back.

"Is there anyone who thinks this is a bad system?" I asked. "Does anyone protest? Does anyone think that, instead of spending 300,000 rupees on gold, they could buy a team of camels and start a business?"

My questions didn't make any sense to the men. 

Recently on TV, I've seen a lot of anti-domestic violence messages. There's a campaign called "ring the bell." In the commercials, the sounds of violence come from a home. A neighbor, or a group of neighbors, walk up to the door and ring the doorbell. In one, a group of boys ask the man of the house for their lost cricket ball. He closes the door, then comes back saying something about the ball not being in the house. One of the boys just stands there tossing the cricket ball. When the man sees this, he understands.

The older guide admitted that there were cases of domestic violence in the village. "But when it happens, a group of men go to the house and beat the man," he said, again with a smile.

As for divorce or other attempts to go against tradition, well, they weren't tolerated. "If a man divorces, he will be kicked out of his caste," he said. And did this ever happen? He couldn't remember the last time it did. Nobody wanted to become an untouchable.

I wondered how any of these things were possible in modern India. Weren't there federal laws to follow? The guide laughed. "What can the government do to me?" he asked.

I thought about stories about tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan, where villagers live by their own rules and refuse to be governed by politicians in the capital cities. I wondered if it was the same here in India. "What if the government declares war on another country?" I asked. "Would you refuse to do what your government wants you to do?"

"If our country told us to fight, we would fight," the older man said. "Without question." He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and added, "even if it was against America."

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