6. WANDERING MEN & A VERY OLD STORY
Jatthu Singh and I ride around the Thar Desert on his motorbike visiting small villages and temporary settlements along the road.
After two months in Jaisalmer, I'm still looking for any existing communities of ghummaker (literally, "with house on back" in Hindi) -- for anyone who is still moving or is interested in talking about that life. I move through towns and through the colony asking my questions, looking and trying to understand who these people are and what they are doing here.
No matter whom I ask about nomads and khanabados, eventually we speak about Jogis. Each time the conversation is so different it seems to me that every beggar is a Jogi and that no one could possibly be a Jogi. The term is rich. Regardless of whatever else is said about them, Jogis are poor. Very poor and untouchable. Like other extremely low caste people in India, from the perspective of the foreigner, they are talked of often, but never spoken to and hardly seen at all. They seem ever present, but completely invisible.
Here is what I am told about Jogis from various residents of Jaisalmer:
They are beggars.
They are dirty and uneducated.
They are lazy and refuse to work.
They are snake charmers.
They are musicians and dancers.
They can't play any instruments and hardly dance.
Their women dance in public and are prostitutes.
They are holy men and live off alms alone.
They are cheats and will steal all my money.
They have hunt with fierce dogs and are very dangerous.
They eat meat and are unclean.
They eat only three-day old rotis that even dogs won't touch.
They are Kalbelias.
They won't talk to me.
They are not very interesting.
They live on the street.
They live in the desert.
They don't live here.
They don't exist anymore.
They have to beg for land to bury their dead.
Eventually, after two months in Jaisalmer, I am introduced to Tota Ram Nath and a community of elders who speak with me about me about their clan, a small community of Jogis living on the outskirts of town. This first meeting opens up several later interviews. My friend, the musician Imam Deen, who had already been a tremendous help in teaching me about the traditions of traveling Rajasthani musicians and performers and history of their settlement in the Kalikar Colony, accompanied me on many visits and acted as a translator and participant in many a bewildering conversation, helping me to put enough pieces together to find some meaning within a story whose characters, plot and setting changed with each telling.
Throughout the many conversations, I remained hung up on a few central questions: why did these people become wanderers? Why did they keep this lifestyle for hundreds of years, through periods of massive change in India and why are they giving it up now? What has changed after all this time?
For the Jogis, it all comes back to a very old story. Like all great origin stories, it is one that everyone in the community knows and that everyone tells differently. So when ten elders and three outsiders gathered in a room it was a very confusing affair. It is not a folktale, but a bahut purana bhat (a very old story). We struggled together through the telling and retelling because they wanted me to understand it.
The story of Kannipau is about deception and pollution. It is an explanation. Every time I try to learn the story, I become exasperated and confused. The names and details keep changing and for weeks I fool myself into thinking that they are important. I know so little about the Jogis, but more than almost anyone in Jaisalmer, they stay with me for weeks after I leave.
Everyone wants me to understand. Old men argue amongst themselves. Imam runs in circles trying to translate between Hindi, Marwari and English. Still there are words that only the Jogis understand. I ask questions in Hindi whenever possible even though these old men don't catch it. We stumble through four versions, hours of tape and too many questions.
The story begins with a great teacher, a guru (Goraknath) and his two disciples (Jalandernath and Kannipau). One day while traveling, the guru sends out his two disciples into the desert to collect alms for his daily meal. Who will bring me flour for making the rotis? Who will bring me dhall and namak for the subzee? Jalandernath wanders for hours with his bowl, begging a handful of lentils here, a few chillies there. The desert is full of empty stomachs and clean thalis and he has a difficult time finding anything for Goraknath. He continues to walk all day.
Kannipau meets the same difficulty. After a few hours, he comes to the hut of a farmer, or maybe it's a banjara camp, or the cart of some Raikas, or a destitute Bhill. The site of confrontation, the object of Kannipau's indiscretion shifts with each telling of the story. But each time, Kannipau is offered a choice. He is asked to do a service in exchange for something he can bring back for his guru. He chooses pollution in secret under the guise of duty and charity. There is always the best of intentions and always some element of altruism and self-interest. Jaldernath is a non-character, he exists as a place maker of the obedient and unchallenged. His descendants become saddhus, wandering holy men of high regard. Kannipau is cursed to remain an outcast, a beggar and a wanderer without a teacher, shroud in ignorance and poverty. He failed a test he did not know he was taking and is sent out into the desert.
Imam Deen and I are sitting at the museum with a young Jogi talking through this story and his memories of growing up the only Jogi in his dang who could read and write, who could speak Hindi with confidence. He stayed as a boarder in various small town government schools while his family wandered, sending word of where they might meet up on weekends and festival times. He wants nothing more than to see all of the Jogis settled, to build a school where he can be a teacher. All his stories and explanations carry the aftertaste of this conviction.
We cannot live in the villages; no one will give us land. It is terrible to earn food from begging. But Diwana provides a way for all people. We have learned to live even this difficult life.
Each family wanders alone, but knows the location of other families. They organize so that they cross paths only when desired, but never visit the same homes. Groups are constantly breaking up and meeting again in other locations, setting up camp together, where there is water, but walking towards different villages to beg.
In the older days, Jogis would travel with dogs, donkeys and hens. The few possessions a family had were piled on the donkey - some cookware, a quilt, maybe a charpi to load everything on. A lucky family had some chickens riding on top of the whole lot. Jogis are famous for breeding fierce fighting dogs. They hunt with the dogs and use them for protection against hostile villagers who might try to rob them or forcibly drive them away.
There is no space for us in the villages. So, we remain hidden.
Families moved slowly and regularly -- always on foot. I am told that for years they were prohibited from riding in trains or busses. Food is whatever is given: some left over grain, old bread, a few wilted vegetables, some tea or milk, salt, chilies. They would return at night to shelters made from a few sticks, some branches, an old disintegrating sari. Some families might fashion some sort of dera, a shelter made from odds and ends, all sorts of plastic sheets, newspaper, shrubs, glass, sticks. During monsoon, they might make a more stable hut, a jhoperi or tsupera with mud and sticks and a plastic tarp if possible. But Jogis can build homes out of anything.
There is no one solution for surviving a life of constant motion. Different Jogis find different means of feeding themselves. Sometimes the men would enter towns and offer to play music or sing, to do some pujas or work with snakes. Some say that all the folk songs of Rajasthan came from these people. For a long time Jogis were barred from traditional wage labor and rarely received any monetary compensation for their skills and wisdom. I am told most Jogis lived on begging alone.
You find beggars in all of India. What differentiate the Jogis from the many other landless people in Rajasthan is a story and a particular practice of movement -- this way of walking the land and making a life off of a barren landscape.
I know that my time in Jaisalmer is over. At the end of the day, there are not any nomads here. Everyone has settled at least a decade ago. I cannot chase after ghosts. The interviews with the Jogi community were so helpful because they helped me realize that I need to move on. The memory of movement, its imprint has grown faint with these people. It's a lifestyle they have rejected and it is clear why. There is no respect for them as Jogis. There is no more life in this wandering. Communities no longer support them and there are jobs now - honest labor, the idea of homes and land allotments and schools for their children (at some point in the future...).
So, Bas, No more, says the elderly Jogi in his saffron shirt and clean white dhoti. If this ancient wandering - this restless begging was a curse from Goraknath, the casting out of Kandipath, who through his greed and deceit rendered generations of Jogis unclean - if begging is truly a daily death, then perhaps the curse has run its course and the Kalbelias and Jogis are ready to live a new life, to be reborn in a new status, to raise children with a new idea of home, to write a new story.
Homes made of mud and thatch and stones will replace beds of sand and stars. These new houses, these pucca ghar will pull these travelers away from an endless trail of footsteps, a winding road through the desert that has lead to water and grain, to a hundred faces, a hundred bowls. Dust storms already begin to erase these roads, paved with repetition, these roads that render a history and a movement visible.
The Jogis of Jaisalmer are still landless. They have no papers and for this reason are in constant fear of another eviction even though they have been living in this spot of eight or nine years. There is no school, no clinic, no market, no stability for their children. Still, they cannot settle in town. There is no place for them in Kalakar Colony. Still they find their "lonely place". Everyday they walk the few kilometers into town or to the mines. After this long conversation about wandering and hardship and uncertainty, I asked one final question. In two years’ time, where will you be?
Right here, Tota Ram Nath says and strikes the ground between us with his large and worn metal tipped walking stick. We stay in this place now.