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Life in a Shekawati Village Rajathan II

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Published: June 23rd 2017

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They say (don’t “they?”&#x1F609 that to be pooped on by a bird is good luck? Well, we consider the bird that aimed and hit his target on Jamie’s leg on our last day in Ranthambore to be the good luck that brought the uncle/nephew combo of Asgar and Mubarik into our lives.

After the Ranthambore National Park, we headed back to Jaipur, the crazy, hassle-ridden city to spend a few days. The touts there are like tigers jumping on a fresh kill, it can be ruthless. At first, Asgar Alikhan was just another one of those touts, but he turned out to be different. We met Asgar our first time in Jaipur and he gave us his mobile number and told us he had a car and could take us around town for 300 rupees (about $6). He didn’t pressure us any further – which is always a good sign. Arriving back into Jaipur after our tiger safari, we gave Asgar a call and decided to have this stranger give us a tour of the city and Amber fort, about 10 miles north of Jaipur.

As is usually the case in India, things never happen as planned. At 9:00AM

the next morning, Mubarik Alikhan, Asgar’s 20 year-old nephew, showed up with a rickshaw to take us around. Whoa! With Asgar, we had agreed on a car for the day, not a puttering rickshaw. Grumbling a bit, we started off. Mubarik started off the day with one of many jokes – “what do you get when you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? – a jumper.” OK, it was cute, he spoke English well, and the jokes kept coming. He was so good-natured, confident and we had so much fun with him as he took us around the city to some of the tourist spots. We invited him to join us for lunch at a local joint and had a wonderful Rajasthani meal. After lunch we went to “Asgar’s corner” to drink some chai and say “HI!.” Over chai, Asgar and Mubarik invited us to join them in their home village in an area of Rajasthan called Shekawati to celebrate the Muslim festival of “Eid Mubarak.”. This is a religious holiday on atonement and “new beginnings.” We huddled together to discuss whether we would be crazy to accept these strangers’ invitation to

go home with them, or would we be crazy to pass up this opportunity to go visit a village we could never get to as a tourist. We chose to go. We went to the train station, refunded our tickets to Jaisalmer and got new train tickets that would take us to a small town of Bikaner and then to Jodhpur. That night we ate dinner at Asgar’s home in Jaipur with his wife, their five kids, his mother and many other family members that were some how connected.

Asgar is about 37 or 38 years old and has five children under the age of seven. He has the biggest smile and he opened up his home to us. He is not wealthy by any means and their home in Jaipur was in a building with a few sparsely furnished rooms on the ground floor. The kitchen was nothing permanent, more like a camping stove. The “sink” was a hole in the floor and a bucket of water. There only appeared to be one bed in the three rooms they lived in and there were many people living there. We had some of the best mutton curry and dal we

had tasted, and I’m sure having three extra mouths to feed meant that someone in their family had less to eat that night. Working in the tourist industry in not the most lucrative employment, but one can get by and support a family living in modest conditions. Asgar had it good though, as he owned a van and a rickshaw that others could drive and pay him part of their earnings for the day.

The next day, the three of us were picked up and we were off to the desert village. Shekawati is in western Rajasthan near where the Silk Road once was (where camel trains brought spices and silks from Asia to the Middle East and Europe). Shekawati is an area of Rajasthan that is known for the old houses called “Havelis” (have-ellies). These are ornate houses with multiple courtyards that have paintings all over the walls and ceilings. These little villages and towns are off the main tourist circuit and not easy to get to, so having locals take us to this area was a bonus.

We arrived in the very dark village around 7PM and were immediately served our first of what seemed like many buckets

of masala chai that we drank over the next two days. Masala Chai is milk tea with spices like coriander and ginger. We went to Mubarik’s home where his mother, sister, her daughter and a daughter-in-law lived. The father was home on a break from his work in Saudi Arabia. They lived in a brick and stucco “compound.” There was an outer yard for the goats and cow and an inner courtyard where daily life took place. Five rooms surrounded the courtyard – three were bedrooms, one housed the grain mill and other dry goods, and one was the “summer time” kitchen. The wintertime kitchen was out doors and consisted of a brick stand that held a pot and was fueled by twigs and cow pies. All of our meals were made over what looked like a campfire. Justin now has huge expectations for Jamie to produce gourmet meals next time they go camping after seeing what these women could cook on a primitive looking stove. The bathroom was a true outhouse where water was drawn from the well to be used for flushing.

Since it was so cold, it was nice to sit by the fire with the women and

watch them cook. There was a definite distinction between the male and female role in the family. It was a very traditional household where the men ate first and separately from the women. Throughout our time in Shekawati, the difference in the roles of men and women was quite obvious. Women seemed to always be in the background, didn’t start discussions and were constantly cleaning up after the men. As guests, Stacie and Jamie ate with the men. We offered to help do the dishes and help out, but the women had us feel their hands and then ours to tell us that their hands were rough and calloused and used to this work, where as ours were not. Jamie was amazed at how they could pick up a hot pot with their bare hands, or put their hands in the fire to adjust the twigs to change the flame, altering the amount of heat to the pot.

Eid Mubarak is a day of sacrifice and atonement, so in the morning the men, including Justin (wearing a borrowed sport coat) went off to the mosque to pray. The service actually took place in a soccer field to accommodate the 200

worshipers who showed up. On the surface, it seemed much like the TV footage you see on the nightly news of Muslim clerics shouting their sermons in Arabic into microphones over worshippers who are kneeling on prayer blankets. But in contrast to the images of fanatical hate on TV, it was a positive, welcoming atmosphere.

As the only non-Muslim for miles around, Justin tried to remain unobtrusive and just bowed when everybody else bowed. Soon, the service was over and the crowd trooped to a nearby graveyard to give blessings to deceased relatives. The morning activity concluded with everybody saying “Eid Mubarak” and hugging each other. Instead of giving distrustful stares, people went out of their way to greet Justin. He must have embraced every one of the 200 people on the field – they even lined up one-by-one to wish him well. Folks’ happiness about the day and pride in their religion was quite evident.

Back at the house, the women dressed Jamie and Stacie up in traditional clothes, put oil in their hair, and black khol under their eyes. They were now “presentable.”

This day was an unlucky day to be a goat in India. Mubarik estimated that about

600 goats were sacrificed in their village of 800 houses. That morning, a cute, 1-year old male goat was hanging out in the courtyard eating kitchen scraps – a tasty, LAST, meal if you are a goat. It was running around and seemed to be playing – it even mounted Jamie! This goat soon became our dinner. It was the first time that we were this close to our food source. The goat was slaughtered in a “halal” manner (the Muslim kosher) by the cleric who stopped by every house in the village with his knife. After a few bleats, the deed was done. The cleaning and skinning was men’s work, so Justin jumped right in. He can now cross skinning a goat off of his list of his things to accomplish in life. The goat – all its pieces and parts – was made into a rich goat curry that was fiery and delicious.

It is tradition that about 2/3 of the goat be donated to families that can’t afford their own goat. A goat costs about $50 and ours yielded about 15 kg of meat. That afternoon, we went to visit all of Mumbarik’s relatives in his village (and drank lots and lots of chai) and every house was busily preparing their slain goats for that evening’s meal.

After a tour of Mubarik’s village, we went to a larger town called Ramgarh (it merits a short blurb in the guide book). This was Asgar’s home and we met another part of the family, drink more chai and, of course, eat more mutton. It was here that we also got to wander into some of the beautiful old havelis. Most are uninhabited and are crumbling due to lack of upkeep; a shame since it is a piece of India’s heritage that is unique. We wandering into a haveli that still had a family living there and asked if we could look around and they obliged. It was so ornate and colorful; it put any wall paper produced today to shame. We also headed to a Hindu temple that was called the “mirror temple” because of the thousands of mirrors on the walls. I bet in candle light that temple just sparkled.

In the course of the day, between drinking chai and eating mutton, we had the opportunity to take a camel ride. Jamie and Stacie climbed onto the camel and headed towards the desert. After five-minutes, they were ready to get off and very glad that a camel safari was not on the itinerary. It was an uncomfortable ride. Not being desert girls, they were not aware of the proper procedure for getting off a camel. In order to get off the camel, the camel must sit down first. It first moves forward as it goes down on its knees and then backwards as the hind quarters settle to the ground.

Well, instead of moving in the opposite direction that the camel goes, they moved with the camel and ended up flying off the camel, face first into the sand with the saddle landing on top of them. The camel seemed happy to get them off his back and Jamie and Stacie were a bit dirty and spitting out sand after the fall, but felt ok. It was quite funny that they were ejected off the camel. This put an end to their camel riding days.

Later that night, in conversation with the men, we learned that at least one male member of every house in the village, as is the case with most villages in Rajasthan, worked in Saudi Arabia or Dubai. Rajasthan takes in a significant part of the $21 billion that India receives from its people who work abroad. We talked about the hardships that families go through when the men are in the Middle East for 10-11 months a year. We met one guy who used to drive a fuel tanker truck in Iraq. He was very thankful to be home unscathed. We prepared to be grilled on US politics. But once we established that we, too, thought GW’s Iraq fiasco is a disaster, they mainly wanted to talk about economic matters. They were flabbergasted that a plumber usually makes $35-45K in the US. We tried to make it clear that the cost of living there was much higher than in India. But discovery resulted in a lot of chattering in their local language about, we imagine, future plans.

The next morning we arose to the usual cups of chai around the cooking fire. We noted hair burning and looked down to see the goat’s head roasting in the flames. They were preparing the delicacy of goats brain for dinner. Alas, we were moving on another town and would miss dinner. Darn!

It is hard to put into words how amazing our time in the village was. Here we were foreigners who were invited into a home and given an opportunity to peak into the life of rural Muslim Rajasthanis. The conditions were quite primitive – an outhouse, bucket baths and food prepared on an open fire, but we were treated very well and were made to feel like family. The importance of family to people was very evident. Mubarik commented to Justin that he was quite content with his lot in life and had everything he needed in the village. Even though the women in the family did not speak English, we laughed a lot – as they were a happy family. Justin didn’t take too many pictures at the village; at some point in our stay, we crossed the line from being tourists to being friends. For all of this what had to be costly hospitality, they would only take the money for gasoline that we had agreed upon three days prior. It was the kind of experience that can never be promised in a tourism brochure.

After leaving the village, we took a crowded local bus to Bikaner in the north of Rajasthan. We had a short time there and visited the Karni Mata temple where hundreds of holy rats are given free reign to scamper around the marble floors. Generally, they looked scrawny and a bit crusty and nothing like Jamie’s beloved pet rat, Minkler. But by the number of worshippers crowding ten-deep in front of the alter, it was clear that those rats are highly regarded. Go to www.karnimata.com to read more.


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