Sandstorm Tango

Oh rain, bless the Thar desert this time 
Rahul Ghai Bikaner

The absence of monsoon has been one of the quintessential experiences in the popular psyche of arid Thar in Rajasthan. The region is endowed with extremely scarce rainfall - less than 100-150mm - and every three years out of five are drought years. Much of the history of everyday life here has revolved around this overwhelming marker of seasons and the monsoon makes its presence felt by the eerie silence that scars the pristine Thar each time it does not come. 

Plunged in prolonged scarcity, stoic locals harden themselves to cope with the annual misery and drudgeries associated with droughts that have been the reverse of monsoons and the rains they bring. When the monsoon does not come, time gets elongated into one long tale of hardship and tragedy, and coping to survive becomes the dominant rhythm of everyday life. The wait for monsoons is a never-ending saga of the resilient spirit of the people in the Thar to survive amidst hardships. This chronicle - the leitmotif of much of the common popular folklore in Thar - is undoubtedly more heroic, subaltern and radical than the chivalric corpus of feudal panegyrics, still recounted by bards of the oral tradition and folklore in the deep, dusty sandy interiors of the desert. 

The non-existence and irregularity of the monsoon in most years of the previous decade has contributed to the persistence of drought in most parts of Thar. It is as if the failure of the monsoon has cast its evil wrath on a region that has been rashly colonised by the onslaught of private capital, reeling under the greed of a chosen few legitimised by the top-heavy development paradigm of the establishment.

The peculiar, dry and sharp heat, beefed up by vigorous dusty sand storms, make the summers look like a never ending infinity. The daily life of most people is one continual struggle for securing the basic necessities of food, fodder for the cattle, and water. Amra Ram from Dedusar village in Barmer district runs a government-supported famine relief cattle camp. "We have got just enough, the bare minimum to pass this annual ordeal. If it does not rain, then the real problem begins. How long can you stretch this camp? People would have no choice but to migrate or leave their cattle stray," he says. Cattle  left stray also means that they will be left to die.

"The chief minister has listened to us, so at least the Public Distribution System (PDS) shop in the village is open for some days in a month and we can get our rations," Laxmi from Navatala village points out with a sigh of relief. At Hathma village, women can be seen huddled up in long queues in front of a hand-pump that runs only for some hours in the day. During these months, 'Thar women' spend an average of two to three hours daily organising a few pots of water.

Fazal looks intently at the barren fields and rain-parched land all around him. If monsoons do not come, he may have no option but to keep going to MNREGS public works, the new guise of the old famine/drought relief works. Each day he goes to dig earth for a pond desilting work at a site 6km from his house. He leaves at 4am in the morning to join work that begins at 6am. There are many like him, men and women in different villages, who spend consecutive summers like this, year after year after year.

Mohan Ram talks nihilistically about the tragic fate of common people, expressing his anguish and despair, heightened by the extreme heat around. The dusty, audacious violent winds that swallow the village in the day, when you can barely see beyond two feet, clogs hope, chokes sensibilities and dries up precious life-giving fluids. The heat it generates is only to be matched by the deep red colour of the flowers of the eternal kair shrub, the par excellence xerophyte plant of Thar. The blazing oven of Thar only begins to get slightly toned down by the evening, which then slowly slips into the cool solace promised by the thousand-starred sky and the blue moonlight that illumines the Thar late in the night. 

The uninterrupted tango of the vigorous winds and sand storms slowly, persistently, try to pull the rains down. As if they are whispering, in a dry, breathless sound symphony: come rain, come. Hence, cloud-gazing becomes the dominant fixation of most villagers during these hard, thirsty days when tufts of shallow, soulless clouds can be seen in the sky, their colour changing from pale blue to a deeper, richer blue. Oh, meaningless clouds, without water!Indeed, the pessimism and sense of fatalism that engulfs the eternal wait for the monsoon fades away with the coming of the rains. It's a sudden metamorphosis from the dead-end of despair to quick happiness, and yet, there is a philosophical acceptance. Something as rare as the rain is celebrated by the Thar in a grand way. 

Khwaja Ghulam Farid, the wandering desert mystic, expresses this beautifully in his qalam (rendition), Kaldi jungle vich, a perfect pastoral romance that passionately describes how the desert comes to life after the rains - the grasslands shine with hues of green, the ponds are full to their brims with water and the vegetation, flocks of sheep and cattle are out in the grasslands, the parched lithosphere becomes animated with insects like the dung beetle, and a variety of colourful snakes wriggle out on the dark brown water-soaked sand.  

The carnivalesque laughter of the rains, the grand festive celebration of colours, heralds the experience of abundance and its magic touch enlivens and rejuvenates everything. In these times, when the State and private capital combine is moving relentlessly and unabashedly with its nefarious design of appropriating the resources of Thar, when the 'idea of development' is less a quest for collective well-being and more an enterprise for the profit-obsessed rich and powerful, the monsoon is the only hope for the vulnerable. Oh rain, bless the Thar this time.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010

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