Lighting up Lives: Part 2 Lifting the veil of Darkness in Rajor Valley, Rajasthan

Welcome to part 2 of our journey through Rajasthan with the Project Chirag team as we traverse rocky streams and dark forests in our quest to bring light and hope to the deepest reaches of Rajor Valley.

Day 3: Morning ragas and finding rhythm

We woke up to a gloriously crisp morning as sunlight trickled through the folds of our tent. Around 6am the campsite was already in the throes of feverish activity, the local volunteers pottered around collecting firewood, heating water, warming up the tractor and doing a million other things needed to keep the camp running smoothly.

As we shook off the tiredness of the previous days’ travel, a gentle tune wafted through the morning air. Lakshmi, one of the local volunteers from nearby warmed up a large bucket of water as she sang a local ditty, her soulful voice turning the beauty around us almost dreamlike.

After a delicious and filling breakfast of freshly churned buttermilk, crisp piping hot alu parathas and sweet strong tea, we head out to the nearby village of Mandalvas where people from the regions of Garh and Dabkan had gathered.

We started with an introduction to the team, followed by a quick run through about the lamps’ features -sturdy solar panel , cell phone charging point, a handy strap across the back, three power settings and a stand that could very conveniently convert it from standing lamp to wall attachment.

Our introduction was followed by a quick interactive session and finally we started distribution of the lamps. For a nominal fee of Rs. 250/-, the villagers queued up to own one large and one small solar lamp…and their share of a whole new world. The excitement in the air was palpable, albeit tinged with a sense of urgency. There was some rough and tumble as the crowd got a little anxious, but the Chirag team did an outstanding job of calming their fears and ensuring that every family received the lamps.

77 houses later; we wrapped up for the day.

Day 4: Blood, revenge and red tape

Another 6am morning.

Getting up early was a pleasure and a necessity. With no electricity in the valley, we relied on good old fashioned home grown Indian ingenuity. A few wires hooked up to a tractor battery routed through an adaptor and a multipoint plug and voila! Instant camera and laptop charger! While this was an effective solution; charging was slow, hence the 6am wake up call. Fortunately we didn’t have to charge our cell phones for the pure and simple reason that there wasn’t even a hint of a signal here. Gloriously cut off from the incessant checking in of humanity and locked away in the heart of untamed Rajasthan; Rajor valley is indeed a stunning getaway from civilization and all the technological hassles that come with it.

After breakfast, we took stock and loaded the material for the day. A daily check on the number of lamps stocked for the day was essential. Too many would result in a hue and cry for more lamps per household, against the one set per household that was planned. Too little and we wouldn’t have enough to cover the day’s schedule, resulting in a lot of disappointment and a fair amount of anger.

Which brings me to the drama that followed later in the day. *foreboding music plays!*

Trails of treachery

What we need to understand here is that rural socio-cultural dynamics are very different from urban India. Community pride, caste, occupation, family and history are critical societal influencers here.

That combined with the fact that it’s a hard life -the days are long, the work hard and the rewards minimal. A typical day begins at 5 am, milk the cattle, gather firewood , take the cattle for grazing, tend to the fields , travel miles out into the city just in order to sell it for whatever pittance the middleman sells it for, and just have about enough time to get drunk, eat and sleep away the days exhaustion

We loaded our gear into our jeep and drove out into the mountains surrounding the valley to a little village called Mandalvas…

… immediately finding ourselves in the middle of the aftershocks of a centuries old blood feud between the Meena tribe of Mandalvas and the Rajputs of Rajor. A little digging revealed a fascinating tale of betrayal and treachery…

Our tale began centuries ago and 11 kilometers away from Jaipur, behind the walls of Amber Fort ruled by the Kachwaha Rajput king Raja Man Singh and his family.

Earlier to the Kachwahas, Amber was a small region known as the Khogong built by the Meena clan in the town they consecrated to Amba, or the Mother Goddess. It was there that the seeds of this blood feud were sown.

The Meena king Raja Ralun Singh also known as Alan Singh Chanda of Khogong adopted a stranded Rajput mother and her child who sought refuge in his realm. Years later the child, Dhola Rae was chosen by the Meena king to go to Delhi to represent the Meena kingdom.

During Diwali, the Meenas performed a ritual called Pitratapan, during which time it was customary for the Meenas to be weaponless. It was during this time that the treacherous Dhola Rae, returned with Rajput conspirers and massacred the weaponless Meenas, “filling the reservoirs in which the Meenas bathed with their dead bodies,” and thus, conquered Khogong… a heinous act that has gone down as one of the blackest moments in the history of Rajasthan.

Fast forward to today- Mandalvas is populated by descendants of the Meenas, and the Rajoris or Rajputs. Boom! Time travelling blood feud explained!

The tension among the people gathered was palpable from the word go. What started as a rumble, ballooned into a full-fledged brawl with accusations flying back and forth, and people of both sides accusing the other side of cheating them of their fair share of lamps. The Project Chirag team did a brilliant job of calming down tempers and conducting things in an orderly manner. After a point, however, we were spending more time preventing an all out brawl than getting any work done. Finally we had to pack up and move on to the next village…

The second stage went off smoother. Eventually, it was the end of a rather disappointing day; the yelling, the accusations, the very real threat of physical violence, the shouting and the mobs, all left us a little sad and bewildered.

Later that night over a bonfire, we discussed this at length with Ratanji. We started off tired and sad at the reaction of the very people we were trying to help, but towards the end, thanks to his wise and empathetic approach, we couldn’t help but understand and empathize a little with the villagers. We’ve already touched upon the bleak reality of their daily life, but listening to Ratanji we realized that was just the tip of the iceberg. Civilization as we know it might have not yet brought its benefits to this part of the country, but its ripples have made an impact in disturbing ways.

Times they are a changing

Most youngsters from rural India make a beeline for the big cities nowadays, and while it bodes well for the country that youngsters from these communities get an education and improve their quality of life, most of them never look back. Village life for most youngsters is a life they want to escape from, not return to.

The policy makers haven’t been too kind to them either. They enjoy little patronage of people in power and the land which they have lived on forever is the target of numerous ‘development’ schemes.

Take the Sariska tiger reserve for example. There are over 700 families within the reserve. The forest authorities have been trying to relocate these families from the area since ‘98. Some families have accepted the money offered as part of the project and relocated, but most of them are still holding out. To quote the sarpanch of one of the villages we visited:

 “What will we do with money? Eventually it will run out. What will we do then? Will the government come feed our families? Give us land that we can farm and make a living with”

These are people who do not know any life beyond the jungle they live in harmonious balance with. Everywhere we heard stories of  harassment by forest officials – not being allowed to use wood from the forest, not being allowed to take anything out of the reserve, even trash which they would prefer to take out to trash dumps instead of littering the forest;  resulting in very unsanitary conditions.

Later, we had lunch with some of the forest officials, which gave us a chance to hear their side of the story as well. Their version was that the villagers were being unreasonable and used the most unsavory methods including blackmail to get back at them and insisted their efforts were targeted towards developing the reserve into a tiger reservation that would rival the success of Ranthambore. They spoke about the resulting employment opportunities and forest preservation.

Both parties made a rather convincing argument in their respective favour. Yet, mired in accusations and counter accusations the dialogue between them gets murkier by the day. And even as they spoke, there were hints of bias and myopic antagonism on both sides that boiled  down to a hot steaming “he said, they said” mess

Let’s be honest. It’s easy to be judgmental and act like we are better than them instead of attempting to understand their lives and doing something which is tougher – making a change.A flip of a cosmic coin and it could’ve been any one of us on the other side of this frame. With these thoughts making us more determined to do our bit, we prepared for the next day’s testimonial interviews and settled down for the night.

Day 4: The Dawn of Hope…and a New Day

The next day, after the usual morning scramble to charge our assorted thingamajiggies, and a hearty breakfast (which experience had taught us was pretty much the only meal we’d have until dinner time) we took off on foot to interview people who had received lights from the team on a previous journey to the region six months ago. We met the most fascinating people and heard their stories…the benefits of the lamps coming through loud and clear. Just to share a few…

  • Financial – Families saved as much Rs. 200/- a month on their kerosene expenditure, stretching out their meager kerosene ration, and keeping them away from the kerosene black market.
  • Health – the previously used ‘chimney’ or kerosene lamps produced a thick black smoke, which coated not only the walls of the house but their lungs as well, causing numerous respiratory diseases
  • Quality of life- children could study longer, men and women were safer from predators and snakes while returning late from the fields, and household chores became easier even after sunset.

The list was endless. But that wasn’t what made the afternoon so special. It was the life stories of the narrators themselves that held us spellbound, and gave us all many reasons to smile.

Like the heartening tale of three sisters who married into the same family. This was my personal favorite, mainly because of the youngest sister’s kid who spent the entire interview standing on my lap playing “got your nose!” with MY nose!

What touched our hearts and made us believe that positive change is possible and that orthodox customs are not a matter of region or urbanism but a matter of mindset, was that the three girls not only continued their studies post marriage, but are encouraged and supported by their in-laws to do so. Anyone who is familiar with the bias against women studying/working after marriage even in urban India, will know what a huge deal this is.

Then there was the one legged farmer who refused to let his disability stop him from anything…tending to his field, taking care of his house, or any other activity…his clothes spotless white, his lined face with just a whisper of a smile, his turban adorned head held high.

Not to forget the goatherd with the dazzling broken toothed smile, regal gait, and a runaway goat! That almost ran over one of the Chirag team.

And finally, the shy 23 year old and her three kids (child marriage is real people, it isn’t polio! we haven’t vaccinated it away)

It was wonderful to witness the sheer joy, love and gratitude with which they welcomed us into their homes and lives… a truly heartwarming yet humbling experience.

After the interviews, and handing out a few more lamps that evening, we decided to see if we could get some night shots. By the time we started out it was way past 7pm – time for them to turn in – but with the exception of one gentleman’s snide remarks, the whole village turned out to happily pose and smile for us.

One lady was particularly adorable. Not only did she drag out all the womenfolk onto the porch on this cold winter night to pose for us…but get this! She came over and took a peek at her picture, and went:

“pshaw! It would look so much nicer if I was not wearing my shawl”.

When she asked me if I could take another,  I was happy to oblige. Not only did she immediately yank off her shawl but also barged into every house,  dragged all the other women folk out and yanked their shawls off too, so everyone would look good!

The afterglow from their smiles stayed with us as we huddled around the campfire later that night, its warmth lulling us into a dreamless, happy sleep.

In the 3rd and concluding part of our eventful journey, stay with me, as we come face to face with adoring kids, drunk men, even a curious tiger…and get a glimpse into some long lost places and legends from our rich mythology…

To learn more about the Project Chirag team, the great work they are doing, and how you can make a difference, do visit their website www.projectchirag.com or write to them at ayesha.m@projectchirag.com

LIGHTING UP LIVES: PART 1

LIGHTING UP LIVES: PART 3

For more of my pictures CLICK HERE.

To know some more about me…CLICK HERE

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