Sayla, February 26th, 2011
I have no idea where I am. Some place named Sayla that is neither on the map, nor in my guide. I know that I am still in Gujarat though, somewhere between Bhuj and Ahmedhabad.
We got here after another truck driver’s lunch with Kuhmansingh: chicken with chapattis and tea – hot stuff that really unblocks your sinuses on a none too clean table (but, at this point, who cares?) and a stop in a village where I bought bangles so small I’m not too sure I’ll ever be able to remove them. I might pass the rest of my life with little bells tingling at my wrist day and night. I also got laughed and laughed at by beautiful little girls, totally unconvinced by my shalwar kameez, veil and bangles.
But things are looking up since the Prince Hotel and my home in Sayla, The Old Bell Guesthouse, is a beautifully dilapidated Indian house in the countryside, with terraces all around my suite.
I was greeted with a glass of water, the holy splotch on my forehead, flowers dropped on my head and a friendly golden lab called Sandy, who immediately jumped on me, in true civilised dog fashion. And I don’t really mind all the mothballs in the bathroom drains, I’m sure they serve a purpose and are there to protect me against some ungodly germs and smells.
Another place where I could stay quite a bit longer.
But let’s step back. A few days ago, after a whole day or driving and stopping along the road for temples and, in Patan, for the spectacularly pillared, multi-storied Rani-Ki-Vav or Queen’s Stepwell where I fell in contemplation, if not in love, with a serenely sensuous stone representation of Vishnu, we finally entered the Little Rann Desert, hot and thirsty.
But there was no time for hot and thirsty and I was almost immediately whisked away in a jeep for a visit of the village and temple. Another temple! Will I be able to make out one from the other in, say, two weeks from now? But, always game, I jump in Mansour’s jeep and off we go. For the next twenty-four hours, I will visit the homes of temple cows (which I couldn’t resist petting, they’re such a friendly sort), of salt collectors and chapatti makers, squat alongside and help cumin pickers, scattered in the field like tight and compact little parcels (one woman in a red, green and gold sari, looks exactly like a Christmas present) and roam the desert, chasing wild asses, antelopes, Siberian cranes and flamingoes.
But we must see the temple first which is obviously well frequented by a colourful crowd that seem to have jumped right off a page of the Bible. The temple itself is, well…none too pretty and reminds, in its sweetly garish painted plasters, the icing on a Price Mart birthday cake.
We come back at sunset (I know, I know, another sunset but I don’t think I’ve missed one in the last few weeks). We’ll have plenty of time to admire this one since the railroad gate is lowered and we have to stop quite a while to let the train chug-chug in front of us for long enough to let the sun sink on the desert horizon like an incandescent piece if charcoal.
Right after breakfast, we’re back in the jeep and I’ll learn everything about Mansour, my young Muslim guide, who is wearing this time a very fetching brown turban: about his family, his views on marriage and alcohol consumption ( he doesn’t mind whisky once in a while, even in strictly dry Gujarat), and about the impala-like wild ass. But, most interestingly about the few families who settle in the desert during the winter months to dig salt marshes and collect salt. They leave in lean-tos in the middle of that cracked desert whose ground, as you walk, fritters away under your steps. It could be the surface of the moon or of an over-baked chocolate cake. The mother is standing by the lean-to: dirty sari, dirty face. There isn’t much water around except for the salted water from the phreatic layer, some 25 feet underground that is being pumped and collected in a variety of square basins, single-handedly carved from the desert soil by the wiry, very dark young man a few hundred feet away.
Right now, he is raking coarse crystallised salt from the bottom of the basin. Back-breaking work! His two little children are watching him: a boy about six and a three-year-old girl chomping on green chickpeas, both incredibly raggedy and dirty. The family doesn’t seem unhappy but rather content with their lot in the immensity of the desert, the silence, and the salt that provides them with a livelihood. I am told that when they die, their salt water logged feet refuse to burn on the pyre.
We chase the antelope, bumping and bouncing on the desert’s rough surface as Siberian cranes fly above, wings silently flapping and darkening the sky. A moment ago, they were all standing in a pond, happily mingling with pink flamingos, then suddenly, they fly away in great, big, happy flock. They circle a couple of times, just for the fun of it and return to their original station to start again a few moments later. Waving and swaying, they create in the sky a lovely fan pattern.
But back to the Old Guest House. It belongs to the local rajah who used it as a guest house for British officials. His son now owns the house and his wife, Prithi, takes me into town to show me her father-in-law’s old palace. This is a renovator’s dream, but only a renovator with deep pockets and a lot of vision to unify the different wings added throughout the centuries and restore the crumbling sculptures and woodwork. Prithi is charming, the product of an English boarding school, meaning that her English is impeccable and she also is the first Indian woman I’ve really spoken to in a month, except for Sushma in Udaipur. Women are visible everywhere but they rarely speak English and are generally not involved in public life. She is smart, vivacious and open but there is a faint sadness about her as she talks about the dreaded condition of women when they fall into widowhood and slide into non-identity and widow’s weeds, literally. I can tell that she is concerned about her own possible widowhood. She is 46 but looks 30 and she has a four-year-old daughter which is very unusual for a woman that age, especially in India.
But there is a worm in the apple and his name is Ajay. I didn’t quite understand who he is, Prithi explains that he does errands for the family of which he seems to be a permanent fixture. He is certainly not unpleasant but he never shuts up, he lectures, he pontificates in very approximative English and his favourite subject is religion. He’s like the annoying windbag relative in a Tchekov play. Now, I had been told that Indians like to do that a lot: lecture on one subject and another without listening at all, in an endless monologue, but I hadn’t met that particular specimen so far. He’s not that easy to understand and I can’t quite figure out what exactly is his point since he seems to spell out a series of obvious statements as if they were his own personal discoveries. “Religion is the opium of the people!” Right, I think I’ve heard that one before. He is a Jain and Jains worship only one God “because many god is for ignorant, uneducated people.” Is he trying to tell me he’s an atheist or a devout Jain? Asking is no use because he doesn’t answer questions, just keeps on droning until your eyes glaze over. It gets a wee bit more interesting when he starts talking about the Sanskrit origin of words like mother and father (both derived of the Sanskrit? Or of the first babbling of an infant?)
– You see, the sound ‘father’ comes from the mouth, because father brings home the food. And mother from the chest, because she brings love.
– But what if it is the mother who works and brings the food while father takes cares of the babies?
He looks at me uncomprehendingly and I pretext an urgent need to wash up to disappear into my room before dinner, hoping I wouldn’t have to suffer him throughout the meal, because all that intense pedagogical talk will certainly make me choke on my food. But I am in luck, it is only Prithy, her little daughter and me.
Afterwards, Ajay is lurking on the veranda for one more lesson in Sanskrit and the evolution of Ohm into the christian Amen and the muslim Amine. He evens takes the trouble to write it down so that I won’t forget. Properly enlightened, I say a hasty goodnight and run to the safe haven of my room.