After spending a few days in Bikaner I took a local
bus to the field office at Lukanransar about 70 k from here, an
hour's drive on good road, deeper into the desert. The Great Thar
Desert is not all sand dunes as is more common of the Sahara but
has a lot of scrub bushes and a type of thorn tree that does actually
have green leaves on it. In certain areas the land is irrigated
from the Indira Ghandi canal built in the 70s. The water comes from
farther north, the Punjab region. The desert is definitely an arid
land. People seem to often just eke out an existence. Not much of
the land is irrigated and thus is dependent on the rains in July
and August, if they come at all. They had a little the summer of
2005 but not nearly enough and are in another time of drought.
The bus stop at Lukanransar is basically a group of
kiosks on both sides of the road, unlike Bikaner which has a full
fledged bus depot. The UMRUL / Plan International folks said they
would pick me up around 11 am but they are not here. This is Indian
time, I remember! Not to worry. A kind older man who also got off
the bus figured I was going to URMUL ( why else would a white boy
be out here in the middle of the desert?) and assures me they would
soon be here. Buses are often late anyway. He then happens to find
a man who is from URMUL on his way to Bikaner, introduces us and
he then calls (cell phones are everywhere) the office and in a few
minutes Rajendra Singh arrives. He is in charge of all communications
for Plan and other donor agencies. He puts me in a tuk tuk/auto
rickshaw while he and another guy jump on his cycle and we make
the 2k quickly.
On our arrival I meet Shilash, the secretary over
all the URMUL programs in Rajastan. Secretary would be more what
I might understand to be a Director. He is 28 years old and has
the huge responsibility to bridge the gap between Indian culture,
traditions, needs and the donor organizations from the various countries.
It is a delicate job which needs someone like him who's culturally
sensitive, articulate, knowledgeable and on top of that a diplomat.
I am quite impressed with the presence of these qualities in him.
I might mention that prior to going to Lukanransar,
Rajendra had stopped by my hotel and left a message suggesting I
try to arrive around 11 am. Lichma and her father are scheduled
to arrive at 12 noon. I am not able to go to Lichma's village because
she lives in a restricted area close to the Pakistan and one needs
to apply for a special permit which can take at least a month. Rajendra
said if he had known when I was coming he could have obtained the
permit. I actually had emailed him in plenty of time but he never
got the email. Apparently the computer networks that far out in
the desert are not always reliable. So it certainly was no fault
of his but simply how things happen sometimes. It definitely gives
one the opportunity to learn something about flexibility!
I then find out that Lichma will be arriving around
2:30 pm (Indian time again) so I have lunch with Rajendra and others
who work there. URMUL is grounded on Ghandian principles so all
workers live on the compound in free housing and all have their
meals free as well in a communal dining hall. I say dining hall,
nothing grandiose. Just a big empty room. We all sit on the floor
on mats and eat with our fingers from individual metal plates. It
really is delicious Indian food: potatoes and cabbage cooked in
a wonderful sauce, a curry, yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions
and freshly baked naan. All you can eat and more. And a wonderfully
tactile way of engaging with one's food. There is good conversation
with the Indian folks and sharing about families, jobs, professions,
By this time Lichma has arrived but they came from
130 k away,and had to go in a round about way because of the no trespass
zone of the military. Otherwise it would have been about 30k. So they
had not had lunch yet. I am offered the guest house and rest for a
half hour while they eat.
When we do meet, we all sit at a round table on
the floor which is covered with carpets. Lichma and her father
sit together and I am directly across from them. Three staff are
there to assist and interpret. This, I am told, is the first time
Lichma and her father have ever seen a foreigner much less a white
boy, so this is a little awkward for them at first. Lichma is
dressed in beautiful flowing orange/yellow silks and her father
is dressed very neatly in his best clothes. Both appear very serious.
As is the cultural imperative, Lichma never speaks one word from
beginning to end to anyone. Girls from the village do not speak
to men unless they are relatives or someone they know well. The
father speaks for them. Lichma appears very shy and somewhat embarrassed,
I notice. She looks sad and doesn't smile for a long time, rarely
has eye contact and often looks down. Father seems kind and soft
spoken and is somewhat uncomfortable too. I discover that Lichma
got married this past April as a 15 year old. It was an arranged
marriage. As I mentioned, she looked sad as she always did in
pictures over the years. Later I ask Shilash about this and he
says she isn't sad but because of the factors mentioned earlier
she would not show her more usual behavior. As a Westener I still
tend to wonder about this given the place of women in the villages.
It also pointed out to me how a behavior can be misunderstood
if one is not knowledgeable of a particular cultural situation.
Lichma is not yet living with her husband but will do so in the
near future. She has a 5th grade education and her new in-laws
will not allow her to continue her education.
I bring several gifts for Lichma. One is a box of
Indian sweets so I give them to her. She wasn't going to open
it, perhaps because she is too shy or not knowing quite how to
be in this unusual setting. But father takes the initiative and
opens the box. All is quite serious and solemn. Then I give her
a new harmonica in a case, pull out my own harmonica and play
around a bit to demonstrate what to do with this thing! Again
she is too shy to just blow on it so one of the staff encourages
the father to do so. He does and smiles. Then he and the staff
encourage Lichma to blow on it. In a few moments she does rather
shyly, and behold, a smile breaks out across her face. She has
such a beautiful smile and it lights up her face.
I give here a traditional piece of art made by URMUL
artisans, a wall hanging, made especially for her which had both
her and my name on it. I also bring a brass pot bought in the
market in Bikaner to give to the father for the family but when
I learn that Lichma got married I gave it to her instead which
left nothing for the father and family. Shilash said it would
be fine to do so and father would not be expecting anything anyway.
The staff see this gift as being particularly useful and appreciated
for its long lasting practical
I dig in my day pack one more time while Shilash
smiles and wonders if there is a bottom to it! So I pull out a
few pencils too. As I give these gifts, I take photos with permission.
When Lichma holds up the wall hanging, she holds it in from of
her face! Again with encouragement and some direction she holds
it to her side. Every now and then she smiles just a little. Of
course, we all have chai during this time! Chai, chai! After a
little more conversation and photos of Lichma, her father and
I, they leave for their village. I try to express my deep appreciation
for their coming all this way and my great pleasure in being with
both of them. The father then thanks me for coming all the way
from the U.S. to meet them. All this in translation of course.
We do our namaste, the father and I have a warm handshake and
speak mainly with our eyes and faces. The good-bye with Lichma
is, you guessed it, a shy one with mostly downcast eyes.
Before I leave, Shilash and I walk over to a small
open building which is what he laughingly says is the 'chai and
gossip' center. It is where the workers gather to drink chai and
catch up on what's happening. So we have another chai. There are
quite a few men there, farmers from surrounding villages, who
have come for further training in agriculture. One rather rugged,
boisterous older man is going on about the rising cost of seeds
and bio fertilizer. He is talking loudly, going around pointing
his finger and gesticulating to make his point all in Hindi.
He eventually comes over to Shilash and me and continues. Shilash
handles it well. Somehow I get involved and he is telling me his
woes, too, and I don't understand a word of it. Actually, he is
a jolly friendly guy. Soon about 15 men are all standing around
the 3 of us as the conversation continues. This guy changes subjects
a lot. At one point, knowing I am from the States, he begins talking
about hurricane Rita and laughingly said if the president hadn't
spread the government so thin in Iraq, Afghanistan,etc., he might
have had some manpower to deal with the disaster!! I had no argument
with that and said nothing. Finally we did our namaste, he vigorously
shook my hand with a big friendly smile,
saluted and we went our own ways.
Wow! What a splendid day! I got back around 7:30
pm. I will say I was absolutely delighted with every moment. They
were all most gracious folks and it is a time not to be forgotten.