Friday, October 12, 2012

The Real Story from Rajastan

A somewhat belated story from last summer.  New stuff coming very soon.  Pinky promise..

“Man I’m so sick of this Rajput shit,” said Kuldeep, in a voice that confirmed he was named properly. 
When he spoke it was in a relaxed baritone that resonated and projected.  His buddies and colleagues, drunk, were heaping praise on him, the alpha of the group, and he was diffusing it with a bit of modesty.  Kuldeep and most of the men who sat in a circle around us were of the warrior caste.  We were in a state named after them, Rajasthan, on a ranch between the middle of nowhere and the boonies.  As raw onions were passed around on a plain silver tray and Bullet beer was poured from large bottles into thirsty cups, the men began to relax and open up.  These men, whose ancestors swung swords for kings, now owned tourist operations.  Instead of running foreign invaders out of the state they now welcomed them in, filing Germans, Americans, and Chinese into tour buses and walking groups.  A clever guide knows what their audience wants to hear and delivers the goods.  Although I was supposedly on an exclusive “insider” look of he area, what I had heard all day long was largely the paint-by-the-numbers routine.  Yet Kuldeep and I had struck up a little friendship during our time together in Jodhpur.  It was enough to get an invitation to join the gang of tour guides at a late night wind-down dinner and drinks session.  As alcohol began to overpower livers, tongues started to loosen.  Honest opinions, gossip, and pet theories emerged under the gaze of a dull moon.  Harish, a short stocky man with a hearty black moustache leaned towards me.
“I’ve got to tell you something that you want to think about,” he said.
Harish had one of the most successful companies of the group.  The crown jewel of his itinerary was a visit to an authentic Bishnoi household.  The Bishnoi people have one of the most fascinating stories you’ll read in the books.  It’s an affirmation of human will and principle.  Every guide on every tour will tell this story.  They probably know it like a flight attendant knows the safety demo spiel.  Harish, however, brimming with both booze and strong opinions was at the breaking point of towing the line.  He wanted to spill the dirt.
It’s a funny thing drinking out of another man’s hand.  The scenario becomes even more odd when you’re drinking opium water.  The old man filled his palm up three times with the brackish brown liquid and I bent my head down accordingly to slurp it up, wondering just how strange and horrifying my trip might be in 30 minutes.  The man chanted a bit, ritually tapped a few parts of the strange wooden contraption that had brewed the concoction, and the service was over.  He and I sat face to face, bonded yet basking in the kind of awkward silence that always precedes an announcement that it’s time to go.
I had just undergone was an important ritual for the Bishnoi people.  The ceremony of offering of this drug-laced drink is the equivalent of passing a western farm hand, fresh off a hard day in the field, a cold beer.  It creates a bond of camaraderie.  Drinking it out of the host’s hand, and therefore placing yourself in an extremely vulnerable position, is a display of trust.  Although heroine is officially illegal in India the tradition continues on the hush hush.  Officially speaking I never touched the stuff.
The name Bishnoi, the brochures will tell you, comes from a variation of the Hindu word for 29.  These people live under the banner of 29 principles that revolve around a central theme of environmentalism.  They are not born into the group, but rather they have, much like a Jain or born again Christian, decided to adopt the lifestyle and dogma full kit and caboodle.  The man’s house in which I sat was constructed of wood that was gathered only after the tree had died, and was lashed together instead of nailed.  Birds flew in and out of the humble shelter as we sat on a hard packed manure floor.  The place was clean and Spartan.  The food cooking in a pot behind us was purely vegetarian.
All of this is not something terribly remarkable in a country like India, where you’d need an extremely good memory or about 10 sheets of paper to list every cult, sect, and faith.   The Bishnoi would be just one more group of guru followers if it weren’t for a rather extraordinary tale of courage. The story starts almost two centuries ago when the maharaja of Jodhpur determined he would need more wood to construct a new palace, so he sent a platoon of soldiers and lumberjacks out to the countryside to cut down some khejri trees.  A woman named Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi, caught wind of the project and rushed to intervene.  To the Bishnoi the khejri (prosopis cineraria) is one of the most sacred and valued species of the land.  Amrita, in retrospect, was kind of the Julia Butterfly Hill of her day, but she paid a much heavier price for her principles.  The altercation escalated to the point where the woman, in a dramatic all or nothing toss of the dice, wrapped her arms around the first tree in line and declared that they would have to kill her before felling the khejri.  The maharaja’s authority wasn’t a strong point to debate in those days so, LOP!, off went her head, in full view of her two daughters who had stumbled out of the house at the sound of commotion.  Now the daughters, fortified with mom’s dying resolution, took their places, one at a time, against the tree.  They would have to kill them as well.  Two more tiny heads rolled to the dirt.  At this point, word had spread throughout the nearby community that something was going down.  “Oh brother,” some soldier must have muttered as Bishnoi from the village, clothed in white, faces hardened with determination and conviction, began to spill out of the forest and into the scene.  In a supreme act of sticking to one’s values the people came one after another and wrapped their bodies around the trees, cloaked in no armor stronger than cotton.  It was a slaughter.  By the time an update reached the maharaja’s ears over 350 Bishnoi had been hacked to death, the blood from their headless bodies disappearing into the thirsty earth.  The ruler, overcome with both grief and admiration, called off the soldiers and the project.  The khejri tree would henceforth be protected, and the Bishnoi would go on to become legends of guidebooks, websites, and pamphlets.
It was regarding this story that Harish, breath ripe with hops and barley, wanted to clarify a few things.  He had a different take on the matter.  A theory I could tell he’d spent a good deal of time working out.
Caste, in India, is a delicate thing.  It’s the big elephant in the room.  It’s the big elephant in about every room.  I arrived in Calcutta, at the very start of my Indian adventure, a few days early.  I wanted to get a lay of the land myself before hitting the road with the crew.  A friend had graciously offered the use of his apartment, which was more than spacious enough for a single guy.  Over the next week the place began to get a little cruddy, both from what I tracked in and from floating dust arriving from nearby construction projects, so we hired a maid.  She doused our dirty clothes in a big plastic tub and hung them out to dry, washed dishes left in the sink, and went over the floor twice with a straw broom and then a wet cloth.  The place looked fantastic… until I walked into the bathroom.
“Hey, our made forgot to do all the bathrooms,” I said to the neighbors, hoping they could pass the message on.
“No bathroom,” they replied.
She would not clean a bathroom.  That kind of work fell below her caste.  She may be a laborer, but she wasn’t an untouchable by god.  So I pulled out the scrub brush and cleaning fluids and took care of the bathroom myself, thinking how peculiar this situation was. The lady washing your floor and your clothes would not dare step into a telemarketing firm and ask for work.  She would probably receive the same reaction, as would a trapper with a musket and raccoon hat looking for a job on Wall Street.  This is above her.  However, this same lady will not extend her floor cleaning into your restroom.  No.  This is beneath her.  There is one more rung down to the bottom of the ladder.  Those people clean bathrooms.
In America what you will or will not do largely depends on your economic means.  The harder up you are, the more willing you are to get your hands dirty.  Yet there are several people who enjoy doing tasks they could probably pay some one to do for them.  Personally speaking, washing dishes and cleaning up the apartment actually gives me a little Zen.  I suppose it’s the singularity of focusing on one simple task, plus it’s a fantastic way to procrastinate from more challenging work while fooling yourself into thinking you’re doing something productive.  I don’t see cleaning as a reflection of my worth and standing.  I grew up in a house where menial chores helped secure an allowance.  There was a direct connection between cutting grass, pulling weeds, and cleaning house on one end, and candy consumption on the other.  If you are a kid born into an upper- middle class household in Delhi, however, you would have spent your childhood watching another person, or people, perform all these chores around you while you did homework, played games, or watched television.  It’s not a matter of what you’d care to do.  It’s a question of what you are born to do.
So how about the poor guys on the very bottom of the caste ladder?  Their ancestors handled jobs no one else wanted to do.  They would slaughter animals, cremate bodies, and clean out sewage systems.  Centuries later they find themselves largely doing similar tasks.  Your value and economic means lie strictly in providing services within your caste’s range of options to the community.  The lower you sit on the totem pole, the more concrete this rule stands.  If you happen to be born into the top three castes, priests, warriors, and merchants; there is, generally speaking, a good deal of room to reinvent yourself.  If you are born close to the bottom then good luck to you pal.
Lower castes, as a rule of thumb, do not get much of the spotlight in India.  They scurry around your kitchen, or work behind the scenes largely unnoticed and ignored.  Several times in India I have been welcomed into a living room for chai and snacks.  The hospitality truly is wonderful.  I would carry on frivolous conversations with my gracious hosts as a lady swept the floor around my feet.  The proper thing to do in such situations is not to address her, include her in the conversation, or offer her a seat or drink.  You should rather carry on as if she wasn’t there.  This is business as usual.  However, in a tiny region of Rajasthan things have been turned on their head.
Rajastan is the land of the Rajput, a class which sits near the pinnacle of the caste system.  The Bishnoi are comprised of the Shudra ranks, which sits on the very bottom.  That’s why one group has houses and palaces and the other lives on packed manure floors.  Everything was as it was designed to be for generations, and then suddenly heads started rolling.  Cutting down peasants for insolence was supposed to teach them a lesson, but instead it gave them a legacy.  It’s not only a good story.  It’s the kind of story that tourists generally consider the mark of the purest most estimable character.  Things have become awkward for the Rajput born guides, whose forefathers could assault a man of lower caste for simply looking at them the wrong way.  Now they must ask permission to bring tourists into the homes of the Bishnoi where the admiration runs in an odd direction.  Environmentalism is in vogue among the general traveling public of the developed world.  The Bishnoi are quickly recognized as the grandmasters of the philosophy.  They were green before it was cool to be green.  So the guides sit on the sidelines, next to their buses and vans, and watch Japanese, English, and Canadians gush over men of lower caste, paying them the highest respect.  I can only imagine that some of these proud men must feel just a bit like an ageing starlet whose young assistant has suddenly caught the fancy of the director, who now wants to take a chance and make her the star of the show.

“Think about this,” said Harish, “you are a young child and have just seen your mother decapitated by a large group of men.  What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “probably cry.”
“Exactly,” he said, picking up steam, “if you are a child you will cry or run away.  You will not sacrifice yourself.  This a child does not do.  Now how about your neighbor?  If you see him killed are you going to rush into the axe that spilled his blood?”
“So you’re saying the story is bullshit,” I offered, waving my beer in a grandiose sweep for emphasis.
I pushed open the door and Harish came barreling through.  His arguments were hot and fast with no pauses for emphasis or breath.  He’d been biting his tongue for way too long.  The Bishnoi was a clan composed of people who had been kicked out of their original communities for crime or bad behavior:  Thieves, cutthroats, and two time losers.  Where can a man who is already on the bottom of the ladder go when he is kicked off the last rung?  He is an outcast.  Jumbheshwar Bhagwan, the founder of the movement, solved this problem in Rajasthan.  Like many cult leaders, he was a charismatic charlatan with a good idea in search of a following.  A person, regardless of their path could adopt his creed, pledge allegiance to his leadership and vision, and become part of a community again.   He could start a new life.
“Well, O.K. let’s say that’s true,” I said, cutting in as Harish finally sucked some fresh air into his lungs, “Maybe you’re suggesting they didn’t start off with pure ‘green’ intentions.  O.K.  But obviously some commotion happened over the trees so they must have eventually embraced the idea just a little bitty bit.”
“There were no trees,” Harish exclaimed, spreading out his arms like a hawk in a dive.
This story was a cover.  What really happened was this:  The princess of the land was returning to the palace.  As her regalia laced procession passed by a couple Bishnoi standing on the side of the road she heard one of them drop a degrading remark.  “I’d like to shake that peach tree,” he may have said, thinking her just out of earshot.  She returned to her fortress traumatized.
“She did not think this bad for herself.  She was unconcerned for herself,” Harish clarified, “but she was thinking ‘if his man can say this to me, a princess, how must he say with every woman on the street?’”
So the princess, selfless heart dedicated to the proper treatment of village women, dispatched a platoon of soldiers to give this leach a lesson in manners.  When they accosted him the lecture escalated into some sort of conflict.  At this very moment another procession was heading down the road.  This one, much larger in size, was comprised of Bishnoi celebrating a wedding.  They saw one of their own getting roughed up by the elite guard and did not like it.  Men ran over, pent up frustrations boiled over, and before you could say “khejri” all hell broke loose.  This, according to the unofficial version, is how over 350 Bishnoi died that day.
I leaned back in my lawn chair and muttered, “huh..”  The term “sour grapes,” came to mind, but I was neither of the disposition or sobriety to launch a rebuttal, so I leaned back and took a swig of my Bullitt beer while the night cooled around us. 

On a long flight, weeks later, I thought about that conversation again.  I recalled Winston Churchill’s wonderful aphorism, “History is written by the victors.”  Certainly this is the reason why neither book nor teacher in my grade school had a bad word to say about Christopher Columbus, who I later learned had a nasty habit of slave trading and decimating peaceful island tribes.  It might also have something to do with why I never heard about allied forces firebombing civilian neighborhoods in Tokyo, killing more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  If the Royal guard in Rajasthan were on the winning end, wouldn’t they be the ones to spin the story of what happened that blood soaked day?  Why would they fashion a tale that made them look so monstrous in the murder of hundreds of villagers?  Could a sorely defeated and depleted Bishnoi community, composed of the most ill educated members of society, have the savvy to turn a story of class conflict into one of environmental defense and get it to stick?
Perhaps there was some veracity to both versions.  Maybe the princess herself accompanied the soldiers and lumberjacks on that ill planned logging expedition.  When the saws and axes creating a ruckus around the village a crowd began to form.  People began to shout things like “sacred,” “property rights,” and “compensation.”  At this moment her highness may have stepped forward to declare everything was completely justifiable under the authority of the king.  One rambunctious soul, hidden in the pack, perhaps piped up and told her where she could stick her royal decree.  Guards, enraged over the treasonous rhetoric, would have moved to accost the wretch.  Pushing into the mob they would have shoved aside villagers who began to shove back.  A punch was thrown, rocks were slung, swords were drawn, and the violence spiraled deep and dark red.

For the moment the tree defense story stands while the foulmouthed villager version lurks in the shadow of late night whispers.  Although nothing jaw dropping has occurred in the last century, the Bishnoi continue to defend the khejri, quickly filing legal action and swarming courthouses when the protected trees are cut.  They also protect the endangered black buck that roams the plains of Rajasthan.  When famous Bollywood actor Salman Kahn thought it might be a good idea to poach one of these animals from the safety of his entourage and fame, he found out the hard way that the Bishnoi are pretty darn dogged about seeing their point through to the end.  Although his clout leveraged a five-year sentence into six days of actual jail time, it’s been a legal nightmare for the bulked up star for over a decade.[1] 

The man who offered me a heroine drink in his home...  I liked him.  I felt at ease in his breezy shack with the birds and lizards darting around us like some Disney movie.   The guides who cracked a few beers for us on a moonlit night...  I like them as well.  Everybody’s got their frustrations with work and needs to let a little steam off.  I am no stranger to a little drunken badmouthing now and then, though I’m usually just a shade sensible enough not to do it around journalists or writers.  I hope they forgive me one day for sharing their pet theories.  The Rajput and Bishnoi will continue their awkward economic dance.  A dance stepped to the tune of a modern world where information has become stronger than the sword.  Dot-commer nerds scored trophy wives once reserved for genetically superior jocks, everyman Arabs armed with camera phones gained critical mass against deep-rooted regimes, and presidential elections were won from grassroots movements powered by text messages, Twitter, and Facebook.  Own the right story and the world is yours.... reputation, status, and busloads of tourists in the palm of your opium laced hand.

[1] This story also has a revisionist version. Salman’s spin on what happened that night was captured on a late night Indian talk-show years later.  The actor contends that he was driving through the desert when he noticed a baby buck caught in a bush.  He got out of his chauffeured car, offered the trapped doe some food from his hands, and then freed it from the branches.  Somehow, in the confusion, a rumor spread through the Bishnoi community that he had killed the buck.  He’s not sure how they came to that conclusion.