Notes on Culture & Antique Art, Ethnic Decor & Vintage Fashion | Wovensouls Art Gallery
In 2021, inspired by Michael Asher & Wilfred Thesiger’s writings, I made a plan to spend time with camel herders, for a few days.
This could only be realised through the support of an old contact I’d made in Jaisalmer on a trip in 2013 – a remarkable young man – Narayanji – I’ve written about previously. So I reached out to ask if this plan was feasible and whether he knew anyone that I could go live with.
And he did.
And so the plan was firmed up and I landed in Jaisalmer in November 2021.
I would be handed over by Narayanji to the camel-herder S-ji in a small village 46 km away from the Jaisalmer. And from the village to the small hamlet we’d go off road through the desert for another 8 kilometers on Sumerji’s motorcycle. There is no tarred road from the village to the hamlet – and google maps says no route found!
Several times the bike could not be taken through the soft sand so sometimes I walked, sometimes we both walked. And eventually reached his hamlet of about 4-5 hearths.
In the first segment from the airport to the village, Narayanji and I chatted about life and the changes that had come about since I had last visited. About economic development and the cost of that development. About cultural changes. And about some old traditions that needed to change.
We talked about unspeakable subjects – like female infanticide. That a little ‘potli’ (small cloth tied up to create a pouch) of sand was kept on the mouth of the infant. In other places I’d heard of a pot of milk.
We talked some more. And he mentioned that during my stay with the camel-herders I should try to influence them in the area of girl-child upliftment.
I told him that I was neither an activist nor a preacher – and that I was merely an observer. But he said I should try and do what I could as it would earn me tremendous “punya” – which loosely translates to ‘merit’ (or brownie points with the universe).
So with this brief I landed up and began living with my camel herder host.
We spent the day roaming with camels, making tea with camel-milk and eating boras.
In the night they herded the camels into an enclosure and in the morning we let them out again to graze.
And the next day I was taken to their house and met the wife, mother, brothers, 3 daughters and 1 son of S-ji.
The next 8 days I spent with camels, goats, children, a chinkara, and meeting the whole extended family of my host. People would drop in from nearby hamlets to meet and greet me. And we’d be invited to visit.
And after amazing dinners of Bajra Rotla, Kadhi and vegetables every night, all our beds would be laid out under the stars. But before sleeping we’d all sit around and chat.
So at some point I asked my host about the situation of girls in his community. And whether the infanticide stories were true.
S-ji said – ‘look at my own family – I have 3 daughters and 1 son. I have two sisters – does it look like we practice it?’. So that resolved the question and I was relieved that I would have a happy answer for Narayanji.
But S-ji went on to describe another problem that was equally difficult to solve.
He said ‘our girls don’t go to school’.
There are enough government schools Rajasthan.
But the population is scattered across large geographies, leading to large distances between the hamlets and the schools. Further, the absence of public transport / taxis means that private transport must be arranged twice a day. And paid for.
For sons, the investment pays off as he is the one expected to look after parents after he grows up. And the economic benefits of the education will accrue to the parents as well eventually.
But girls marry and go away to join another economic unit … so it is like planting trees in another family’s garden. When resources are scarce, choices must be made. And so the decision favors the sons and the daughters remain unschooled. If they are lucky and there is a primary school nearby, they do get schooled until grade 4. But even that is not seen as essential.
The distance problem was real. The economic problem was real. The government naturally could not be expected to create a school in every hamlet of 10 children.
So what could be done?
We discussed this over and over again. With just S-ji. And then with his little extended family of brother-in-laws and senior men. [In India, even today, age confers stature and the opinions of older people are taken seriously].
I kept thinking about it and I did not have an instant solution. But I had bonded with S-ji’s daughters who ran around me and kept doing things for me out of affection.
A few clips:
Bringing us our morning tea in a flask that is half her size!
The cuteness of it all!! 🙂
So on my last night there, we sat down and had a structured discussion on how I could help to educate the girls.
We worked out the basic numbers.
Not wanting to over promise, I stated the scope, the limits and the conditions of my engagement. And that even that little engagement would be dependent on the engagement of the families.
S-ji again mentioned that this would earn me great “punya” and the future of these girls would be transformed completely by this effort.
Their appreciation gave me confidence that they too would put the effort behind this project. Because putting a child in school is not about the fees alone. It is about making the child attend, about kindling enthusiasm in the child, about adhering to the requirements of discipline, about training the child in social behavior etc etc. And all of these difficult tasks would have to be undertaken by the parents.
And so, in the following weeks we talked on the phone several times to figure it all out.
We worked out the processes.
We worked out my investment and theirs.
We worked out reporting systems.
And in January 2022, 8 girls and a boy (who need economic help as his father had passed away) began going to school.
With books & uniforms paid for by the parents.
With fees and transport paid for by me.
And we named it the MEETA Project [Meeta means Friend or Companion].
There were hiccups as expected, but now those have been resolved.
Every day, on whatsapp, I receive a photograph of all the children standing at their school porch, along with the newspaper of the day as proof of attendance. The photo is the basis for marking attendance in a register.
When the minimum attendance of 20 days in a month of 25 / 26 days is met with, I send them the school fees and transport charges.
Soon it will be a year since we first began.
I believe that the project now has strong roots and is sustainable in the long run. In the past I’ve seen micro projects begin with enthusiasm from all stakeholders and beneficiaries, but that enthusiasm eventually tapers off and the project falls apart. This one seems to be doing fine, and so only after so many months, I’ve gathered the courage to write about it in detail.
Next semester, thanks to the generous support of clients in the fundraiser sale, we’ll add a few more children to this group.
Here is a picture of the 9 freshly-minted students.
Some first-timers. Some who had had to leave schooling and have now joined back.
What was the difficult part if any? It was finding the tenacity in me to keep on. To keep on finding new ways – carrots & sticks – to get everyone to comply. To keep on cajoling and asking without any real authority. To keep pushing for action without becoming a nag. Sometimes I motivated them and sometimes they motivated me.
And eventually we’ve made it work!
Grateful to the Meeta Project for the opportunity to earn punya!