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NOT QUITE GUJARAT

It was a simple name: Mukesh.

That was appropriate; he was a simple man in his complex, furious way. It was a simple name I learnt to say a thousand ways. In Hindi it sounds a bit like Moo-kesh with the accent on the second syllable; Dogster mangled it with creative aplomb according to the emotional tenor of the moment.

Mu-u-u-u-kesh-h-h-h-h… through gritted teeth

Mu-u-ke-e-e-e-s-s-s-sh…? Are you really sure this is the right road? Are you certain?

Mister Mukesh… with elaborate ceremony and sarcasm.

Mu-u-u-u-u-u-kesh!… where are you? Wake up! M’kesh! Now!

Argh-h-h-h! M’kesh!

We didn’t have all that many words in common. I had to make the best of my limited vocabulary.

My driver was young and keen and full of beans but his English was a work in progress – as was his geography. Mukesh had never been to this part of Gujarat before. He was a product of a tiny tribal village near Poshina in the far north of the state, barely educated, a creature of his limited environment. He didn’t know about the world – he barely knew about Poshina. He thought the earth was only as big as Gujarat, that once you got to the border you fell into outer space.

As it turned out, we were about to test that theory.

*

Mukesh made it to Baroda only an hour late, a small, thin lad in a beret, all haste, acne and apologies. I adopted the ‘really cool old guy’ pose and told him to relax. We had ten days together. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey…

I didn’t know where I was going. Neither did he – but he had a list of towns scrawled on a shabby piece of paper and eventually we found a highway that corresponded with the first name on the list. When we got to that place, we drove around until we found the highway that went to the next city on his list. This was sometimes an easy process, sometimes involved maddening multiple stops for directions. I remained calm.

What this young man needed, right then and there, was an unruffled passenger. He was quite stressed enough without me adding to the situation. Angst was not appropriate – so I sucked it up and was serene and reassuring. I congratulated him roundly when we crawled in to Chhota Udepur three hours later – I thought that was the end of the line.

‘No-o-o-o, no-o-o-o, Kawat!’ he said, eagerly.

Kawat? Ka-what is that? Ahh, he means Kavant!

Everywhere seemed to have a dozen alternate names, spellings and pronunciations; Kavant became Kawat, Kavanth, Kavath, Kawath or Kavat. Whatever it was, we were going there. So we drive another twenty five kilometers south through what Mukesh optimistically called ‘jungle’. It all looked pretty scruffy to me.

‘Tigah-h-h-h!’ he said, grinning. ‘Gr-r-r-r-rrrr’.

Mukesh has no fear.

‘Be-e-er-r-r,’ he said, then he clawed at the air. ‘Rr-r-rowr-r-r-r.

I think he meant ‘bear’.

Drac-oola-h-h-h…’

O.K. Mukesh. I’ll roll with the tigah-h-h and I’ll roll with the beer. I’m not quite so convinced that Dracula lives in the forest but, as it’s quite impossible to discuss this, I’m prepared to nod my head wisely.

‘M-m-m-m-m, Dracula, eh? What does Dracula do?’

‘He eats babies.’

This is going to be a very strange ten days.

*

Just as we reach Kavant I note there’s one more name left on the list.

‘Where’s this?’ I asked.

‘Tent camp,’ he said proudly and waved his arm, ‘somewhere…’

We stopped one hundred more times for directions then took a right just before the entrance to town. Suddenly, deliciously, we’re in the country; oxen plodding, families harvesting, colorful saris bent double working their guts out in the fields, sweet children lying filthy in the dust, a dog, a chicken;  so photogenic, so-o-o ethnic, so-o-o-o Indian. Dramatically, the bitumen runs out.

‘Madhya Pradesh,’ says Mukesh. ‘Very bad government. No roads.’

We’ve crossed into a different state. This was the first time Mukesh had been to Madhya Pradesh and he was very alert – I think he was looking for the edge of the world. Just before we got there we found Bakhatgadh, a place I had never heard of until now, a dot on a map about a hundred yards the other side of the border. Gujarat is a dry state. Madhya Pradesh is not.

There, in Bakhatgarh is the tented camp we’ve been looking for. There, in the tented camp was the beer I’d been praying for.

‘Well done, Mukesh! Be-e-e-e-errr!’ I said and clawed at the air, ‘rr-r-rowr-r-r-r.

He looked at me like I was a complete idiot.

*

Right now I should be in Eastern Gujarat but I’m not – quite. Gujarat is that state way over on the top far-left of India, right next to Pakistan. Kismet led me to Gujarat; a chance encounter, good timing and my own innate stupidity; everything was intuition and trust from then on. I took a punt with a total stranger, the enigmatic and charming Mr. Singh, entirely because I liked the look of his picture on the internet. Neither of us had the faintest idea quite what would happen, just when or even where – but whatever occurred, I’d be in Mr. Singh’s car in search of tribal festivals. For the first four days I’d even be staying in his cousin’s tented camp. I was to meet a great many more of Mr. Singh’s relatives by the time we were through.

Mukesh was his chef and occasional driver – now he was mine. I had the feeling the lad hadn’t been doing this stuff for very long but he was smart and anxious to please.

‘I am all-rounder,’ he said proudly. ‘Mukesh doing everything. Me chef, me driver, me guide – all-rounder.’ He ran his fingers through a mane of thick black hair and looked into the distance. Mukesh was going places. He said he was twenty years old.

‘Rubbish,’ hooted Mr. Singh, ‘he’s twenty five, at least! He’s been with us since he was a kid.’

I had the feeling Mukesh preferred being twenty. He was a ferret of a fellow, a little Peter Pan. He would stay twenty till he was thirty – then he’d turn twenty-two. As he had no idea when he was born it was all guess-work anyway. Births, deaths and marriages are not things to be quantified in these areas. Things don’t work that way.

‘They live on a different planet, my friend,’ Mr. Singh said, ‘off in a world of their own…’

*

Bakhatgadh is a tiny village about a hundred yards long, a marketplace, a wispy line of shops selling crap and a crumbling two story palace owned by the ex-maharaja’s third son.  Obviously he was strapped for cash. Perhaps that’s why he’d leased the barren field next door to this opportunistic tented camp.

I had the distinct feeling we weren’t welcome.

We drove slowly through a row of dead eyes in turbans, their complete indifference and utter contempt all rolled up in a single inscrutable stare. They just sat there – and looked and sat and looked some more; like a tribal tigah-h-h-h watching his prey.

Mukesh tooted the horn and there was lot of shouting. Somebody groveled, saluting in a very extravagant fashion at the gate to the palace, then waved us into the paddock next door. Hessian screens had been erected to keep the luxury from prying tribal eyes.

People hurtled out into the sunlight in various stages of undress.  It was obvious all of them had been woken from deepest coma by my arrival. One wild young lad emerged, draped in regional costume. I could still see the sleep in his eyes. His trousers were slipping down, his white shirt crumpled and crooked, buttons undone, his collar slipping open. The sash around his waist unraveled as I watched. He had a huge orange turban plonked askew on his head and a tray in his hand. This was Raju.

*

Seven safari tents stood lined up in the dirt. Each had a strip of curling red carpet outside, on each a folding chair, a low table painted in swirling Raja-shite and a bucket of dead flowers. Rue du Canvas stretched like a circus, tied down to the earth with string, the bare earth in front yawned gently up to a rise overlooking the adjacent valley – on top of that rise, about two hundred yards apart, three great trees.

A Hindu temple to Ganesh stood in the middle of the field – domed, white and empty. An old lady sat in front of the temple, staring straight ahead. She was very still and very silent – perhaps she was dead.  Her purple sari fluttered gracelessly in the breeze, the only sign of life. Then she coughed. No, she wasn’t dead. A ball of phlegm rolled all the way from her anus to the back of her throat. She looked blankly at us as we appeared at the gate.

‘Hoick-k-k-k… bloof!’

A little cloud of dust flew up as granny’s gob hit the dirt. I took that as my welcome.

The masseur prodded at an elderly man as he lay on his side, fast asleep on a divan. This was her husband, a kindly patriarch hovering in his mid-seventies, steel-hearted veteran of the hospitality industry. His mouth hung open, a thin line of drool glistening in the lowering sun. Many tourists had died for that mouth. It snapped abruptly shut. He leant over, grasped his glasses and focused on the intruders. He sniffed.

A frenzy erupted from a tent. It was the daughter. Young Madame was white noise and static, a pampered Indian princess; demanding, selfish and smart. An attractive woman, I suspect – I really couldn’t tell; I was so busy dealing with her spikes I never really had a chance to look; she was too hectic for me, too brittle, a strangely over-wrought, prickly thing. I get scared.

Her fiancé was a brave man. I noted over the days that his tolerance to Madame was much improved with a breakfast whisky. He was tall, strong and brutal, exactly the kind of man an anxious woman needed. He was on the smart side of stupid– she was on the stupid side of smart. They made a great team.

*

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