Saturday, December 20, 2014

Kutch


Some notes and memorable moments from my recent trip to Kutch with Jayeshbhai, Nimo, Sheetal, Madhu, Bhaskar, and Malay. 

The Rann of Kutch, also known as the White Desert, was unlike anything I had laid eyes on in my life. A totally unique visual experience. We walked out to the middle of the desert at night and then the next morning. You are walking on wet slushy white salt. You can eat the “sand” and it is pure salt. It cakes your chapals and you have to kick it off from time to time. Otherwise as Jayeshbhai said, your chapals start feeling like kilos of weight.

Rann Utsav is a yearly desert festival where people come from around the world to live in tents, roam the desert, ride camels and horses, and enjoy local cultural music, dance, and food. It started as a 3-day festival but with help from Gujarat Tourism and determination of the local community, it grew to 15 days, then one month, and is now a 3-month marquee tourist event with Amitabh Bachchan as the spokesman. The tourist experience is top-notch; the tent cities are massive and an engineering marvel to bring running water and electricity to the white desert. The tents themselves are very luxurious, with tiled bathrooms, wooden floors, high ceiling living rooms with sofas, ACs, and super-cozy beds with fresh sheets and soft pillows. You hardly remember you’re out in a desert.

The first day we had a lovely and memorable welcome to Bhuj by Sushmadidi, Sandeepbhai, and the rest of the Abhiyan/Sahjeevan ecosystem. Sushmadidi and Sandeepbhai have helped build an MS-like community in Kutch with many organizations doing genuine work. We were welcomed MBL Retreat-style and had a heart circle. Nimo shared a story about a conversation he had with his dad to explain simply and clearly what he does and why he doesn’t have a traditional career. If he got a job, he would work hard for his boss or company, and in exchange get a paycheck. The beneficiary of his hard work is his boss and company. If instead he serves society, he works just as hard, if not harder, but the fruits of the work benefit all of society. For that, the “paycheck”, comes from the community, which he accepts with humility and trust.

It was a pleasure spending one-on-one time with Bhaskar. He is such a delightful chap. His passion for wildlife photography is inspiring. He shared a memorable story of how he was preparing his portfolio for an application, and wasn’t getting satisfactory shots. There was an opportunity to go to a far off place where a friend recommended he would get some good ones. He was determined to get the right shots, even after several outings, so though it was far he thought he would try to go. He went in the night to the station looking to catch a bus to the remote location. People told him there was no bus going there, but there would be one the next morning. Should he wait or come back the next morning on a random tip? Reluctantly, he went home half giving up. But he couldn’t sleep, so he got up at 4am to go back to the bus station. Still no bus. But someone suggested he could just take his motorcycle and go. So he rode 6 hours to the location and took some shots deep in the woods. Unfortunately he didn’t let anyone know he was going and he had no phone reception, so when he came back late that night he had tons of worried family and friends mad at him for taking off like that. The story shows his passion for his craft and his friends and family love for him.

We met many memorable people on the trip. Anandiben was there to initiate Rann Utsav, and gave speeches to the local community. In an event celebrating a sanitation project which built 1000 toilets in a village cluster, she talked about all the yojnas (“schemes”) the GOI was enacting to help villages. Many were around upliftment and empowerment of women, which I thought was notable and bold given the area was majority conservative Muslim families. Even at the speech itself, the males took up the left and center aisles, the covered women sat to the far right slightly back. One yojna is for 33% of the police force to be female. Another was for women to have free health care, the logic being mothers always sacrifice their own personal health to keep savings for the children. They put their own health as a lower priority. I thought it was interesting that such a scheme rests on an assumption that is beyond debate in Indian culture, but would probably never make it in a country like the US where the sacrifice and trust and respect of mothers isn’t as universal.

Another interesting person we met was Mia Hussein, the sarpanch of Dorodo Gaam where Rann Utsav is mainly held. He is an enterprising cat, having built up the tourism industry from scratch. He had an office with framed photos of him with Modi, Anandiben, Amitabh, and other celebrities. He has brought schools, hospitals, and tourism to his village, certainly all signs of “development”. He has also got a bank to open up a branch, not just an ATM, in his village, and has wifi access throughout. He is a charismatic guy, Jayeshbhai called him “Radhay of Dorodo” (“Heart of Dorodo”).

We met Ashishbhai, a young “Gram Shilpi” graduate from Vidyapith. He has committed to move to a village and serve for his *entire* life. One village, his whole life. He moved his wife out there, and just had a young child. Ashish chose to serve in Ludiya, but faced challenges being a Hindu in a majority Muslim area. He has received terrorist threats, but is determined to find his service path. He is very brave and inspiring to me on many levels. He shared some fun facts about rural Internet use: folks use What’s App like crazy, they call it “Workshop”. Mostly for photo sharing, as they use Facebook. The other main use of the Internet is pornography. This casts a whole different shade to the perceived noble goal of Internet connectivity to every village in India.
 
Mehmoodbhai is another friend of Jayeshbhai. He lives in Dorodo, and is a very highly regarded award-winning musician and artist. He is a massive guy but like many village folk has a warm, delicate, gentle manner. We visited his humble home and sat with him and his goats, where he sang us some folk songs. His voice is so sweet and innocent, it was lovely to be in his presence. Seeing him together with Jayeshbhai was very sweet, they have such a loving and light bond based purely on joyful heart connection.

Speaking of Jayeshbhai, he was the MVP of the trip. At the risk of piling on hero worship, I want to record some of the things I observed about him as we spent a few days together. He is very observant, especially sensitive to moments of beauty. We were in the car in deep conversation and he stopped to point out a distant flock of birds where one was white while the others were dark. Another time we were driving by a rest stop where a couple busloads of uniform-clad school girls were drinking water. He saw one plastic cup blowing in the sand as we drove by at full speed. He had the car stop to pick it up and engage with the girls in a teachable moment.

He moves effortlessly between social activists to powerful politicians to business moguls to village folks. He is absolutely the same simple loving soul in all contexts. He is totally comfortable in his own skin, and doesn't pander to anyone. However powerful or famous, he introduces all seven of us with each of our back-stories as if we are the dignitaries. His conversations acknowledge the darkness but are mainly concerned with the light, the good in each human being; highlighting each of their higher selves. Inevitably, the person melts and smiles warmly; “Jayeshbhai, anything for you”.

During one meeting with villagers who were disputing the government over wild land being turned over for tourism and development, during a tense moment he shared from the heart. He asked everyone to be in silence, then offered personal stories to respond less with head and more with heart. I was especially touched when he emotionally shared how this vistaar of Kutch was very special to him as he spent a year doing rehabilitation after the earthquake. The experience changed his life and gave him an opportunity for service, for which he is forever connected and indebted to this land and its people. He was careful to acknowledge not the logical arguments, but the glint in the eye and determination of the farmers who were telling their stories.

It was a treasure of a trip.  Thanks to the Boyz for the memories.




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