Business in the desert

Business in the desert

Ashis Dutta relives his experience at the Camel Fair in Pushkar, Rajasthan, which hosts one of the largest animal fairs in the world every year.

“How much does that camel cost?” I asked pointing to a fine specimen standing upright. Pandhar Singh gave an ear-to-ear grin, but did not oblige me. I was sipping tea at a makeshift tea stall.

Before me, the golden yellow desert stretched far west, to the point where the sand fused with the grey of the sky. Thousands of camels filled up the desert. Some slouched, others standing.

Many huddled together. Small dusty-white tents punctuated the vista. People with simple yet upright demeanour and extravagant pagdis (headgear) floated around, going about their chores in a relaxed pace. Once in a while, a sharp neigh drifted from where the horses were stabled in the open. It all looked like some cultural mirage. Dali-esque.

At four in the afternoon, the November sun was just about bearable at the edge of the Thar Desert in Pushkar, a small town in Rajasthan. But commerce was in full swing at this annual week-long fair. The largest animal fair of the world.

I ordered tea for Pandhar Singh. He came from a village some one-and-a-half days of camel ride away and pitched his tent in the desert.

He had just bought three camels, harnessed them to his tent and walked into the tea stall to savour the hard bargain. He, however, hadn’t bargained for my company. “How much is that camel, the one standing up by your tent?” I pestered.

“A camel goes for anything between 25,000 rupees and a lakh,” he said, ducking my question.

“How do you determine the price?” my interrogation continued. Pandhar gave a short laugh. Tea arrived in small earthen throw-away pots.

He gave one long noisy sip at the steaming liquid and gestured at the SLR camera hanging from my shoulder, its tele-lens pouting out. “The way you understand about this, I understand camels.”
I didn’t stop prodding and Pandhar parted with some of his roses — the gait of the camel, the way it trots.

“But I saw you stretch open the mouth of the camel and examine inside.”
This time he laughed loudly, throwing his head behind. He gulped the rest of the tea in one go, threw the pot to a heap and nodded his head at me much like a doll with a spring neck. But he did not give away his secrets.

Around the fair

I got up and decided to take a ride around the fair on one of the camel-drawn carts. They were a hit with the tourists. I boarded one. We were a motely group of nine, from six countries, gathered from four continents. All of us squatted on a thick mattress thrown over the wooden flat of the cart. With a jerk and a chorus scream — Ohhw! — we started off.

The cart charted its own road on the uneven desert terrain, occasionally leaning on one side or the other. We passed along a row of tent-shops selling camel accessories. Bright blue cushioned saddles, bridles red and yellow, jingling anklets, braids with nylon flowers and pompoms that hang from the side of the head like long swinging earrings.

Cameras started flashing from our cart swaying merrily on its way. I held tight the waist of a young lady trying to steady her foot-long zoom. She turned out to be Laura from Glasgow.

Our hour-long ride ended in exhilaration. As we were jumping down from the camel-cart, a woman stepped forward dressed in a bright red blouse, long crimson ghagra with sparkling mirror work and a translucent veil clipped to her hair in an inverted V as if hooding a tiara, and flowed down on both sides like in a trousseau.

She wore thick white bangles on her upper arms and a riot of ceramic bangles
covered her forearms. An oversized silver nose ring dominated her face. She approached Laura with a winning smile, to apply mehendi. “Only 400 rupees, madam.” “200 hundred,” replied Laura, and I knew she was hooked.

The sun reclined in a spread of scarlet across the western sky. The desert reflected the colour, adding its own glow. Curtain came down on a hectic day of business in the desert. But barely 200 feet away, life was just beginning.

I squeezed in between two hefty men halfway up the amphitheatre. Lights came out and flooded the stage. Two drums began to beat. A lady announced the evening’s first item — Snake Dance of Rajasthan by a local folk group. Cameras started flashing all around.

Laura arrived by the fifth item, her face flushing. I raised my brows. She shouted above the music, “Been to the circus, and to the magic show…vanishing woman ..there,” she pointed towards the large tents beside the giant wheel some distance away.

“Also has that yummy spicy, crisp … forgot what it’s called,” she said with an apologetic grin.

I reckon it was chaat she was referring to. The giant-wheel side of the fairground was glowing from the lights of food stalls. A galactic array of chaats, Rajasthani chilli-stuffed vadas, bhajis and sweets and ice-cream dominated that constellation.

Beside that under-the-desert-sky food-court were shops lined on both sides of the way that led into the town up to the famed Pushkar Lake, the soul of the desert town. Rajasthani village women in dazzling saris, their face covered by extended ghunghat, crowded by the shops selling bangles and metal jewellery.

They were happily complemented there with equal fervour by women from other continents of the world. The Rajasthani men folk, in resplendent red, orange or printed turbans, waited patiently for their women to finish shopping. The children delighted over balloons, ice creams and toys, their face glowed in the charged festivity of the air around.

It was past 11 when I finally slipped inside my air-conditioned tent. I hit the soft bed and closed my eyes. Camels drifted in and out of my vision. The golden sand beckoned. Was this day some painting of Dali? A spatter of Nordic dialect wafted in. The Scandinavian group might be at their last peg before the bar closed. But I needed to sleep. Sleep. For, tomorrow, I might indeed surprise myself.

And buy a camel.

Pushkar, in Rajasthan, hosts the largest annual animal fair in the world. This year, it is from 20th — 28th November.

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