Monday, 27 June 2011

Bishnoi

We’re on the train from Jodhpur to Jaipur and I’ve just seen the most surreal piece of signage since I got to this country, possibly much longer. Stencilled on the wall next to the (European) toilet at the end of our air-conditioned carriage, in both Hindi and English, are the words “Gentlemen will lift seat”. Given that most gentlemen round here are happy to hang their arses over the edge of the railway track and take a shit in public, the idea that they’d be concerned about the finer points of raising and lowering the toilet seat seems oddly out of place. Stiff upper lip though, pip pip.

Yesterday we did a tourist thing. We rented an air-conditioned car and driver to take us on a tour of the villages around Jodhpur, populated by the Bishnoi people, a religious group whose origins go back to the 15th century, and whose belief system is centred on vegetarianism and protecting the natural environment around them. For the princely sum of £25 we had a five hour trip through villages that would have been inaccessible to us on our own, with introductions to their inhabitants, and entry right into the heart of their homes. At our second stop, Shanti welcomed us into the family compound, where her daughter-in-law was keeping house while ten grandchildren ran around and eventually took Oisin off our hands to induct him in the arts of involuntary diplomacy in the face of overwhelming odds. Shanti showed us the stone millstones that she uses to grind the millet for making chapatis, and then brewed some opium tea, the traditional method of receiving a guest in your house in this area. Although secretly hoping, á la Thomas de Quincey, for some opium-induced lunacy to take over my blogging as a result of this brew, I’m sorry to report that there is probably more of a kick in a tin of coke. That’s a disappointing coca tea in La Paz in 2001, and a disappointing opium tea in Rajasthan in 2011 that we’ve clocked up. It’s as if Nancy Reagan was right all along. Just say no to (rubbish) drugs.

Once Oisin had established that he couldn’t play cricket by himself in the face of a well-drilled band of ten cousins, who took his cries as further encouragement to tease him, we said our farewells. At the next stop we watched a potter who spun up his huge 100kg stone wheel by hand, and then while it imperceptibly slowed down, threw his clay and in seconds had produced a pot and matching lid, a piggy bank and then a flower vase. Five days in the sun, then a day in the oven, and they’d be ready to paint. We didn’t wait. Across the dust road a Muslim family showed us their cloth-printing business, with patterns cut into wooden blocks that had been passed down through generations. Here Pati weakened, and we left with a 2 metre square elephant print cloth, along with a present of a handkerchief for Oisin. I might pinch it to mop the endless sweat from my forehead.

The last stop was a weavers cooperative, where we were fed with millet chapatis, curried onions and yoghurt. The work that they produce on a handloom was strikingly similar to the sort of designs that we had seen in South and Central America. Our host, Chottu, lavished his best efforts on us, but we couldn’t take anything away as our rucksacks are still full to bursting, despite already having ditched a couple of bricks on the way. (The Hanif Kureishi collected short stories were sacrificed in the face of his refusal to write about anything other than middle-age sex. Like middle-age sex, it got predictable after a while.) It turns out that Trip Advisor is the new global currency. In lieu of a purchase, Chottu wrung a promise from me to write the Pukhraj Durry Udhyog cooperative a glowing review.

As we left our hotel this morning to catch the train to Jaipur, the receptionist told me that Jaggi, the owner, was waiting to speak to me. He dialled a number, spoke briefly, then handed me the receiver. “Thank you for choosing our hotel. I hope you’ve had a lovely time here. Can I ask you one favour – just two lines on Trip Advisor, please.” Next time I’ll get in first and offer a five star review in return for a reduction in the rates.