Social structure in the heart of the Thar: The Tribune India
Deep in the Thar Desert, the Indira Gandhi Canal transformed the ecology and economy of many villages, but not their socio-cultural landscapes. In the command area of this canal, some 30 years ago, the Kanwar Sen lift canal, which irrigated Jagdewala village of Bikaner district, was the social laboratory of my doctoral thesis.
It was the harvest season of the kharif and I had to cross the sand dunes to reach out to the farmers to record the parameters of their agricultural and social development.
It was my first day and I reached an isolated farmhouse in an almost dehydrated state and asked the owner for a glass of water. The social hierarchy was so deep that assuming I belonged to a higher caste, he refused. However, he gave in to my persuasion. My conversation with him about the canal’s impact on community life earned me a cup of tea from his wife that gave me the energy to cross the next sand dune.
My interaction with a man from the Bawaria tribe will remain unforgettable. He owned a murabba (plot) of land. His house was far from the village and there were no visible signs of his interaction with the main settlement. Villagers warned me about the man’s behavior. When I arrived, the husband and wife were winnowing the fodder, the guar. To check the size of their operational holding, I asked the man if he rented out some of the land he owned from someone. He got angry and took a forked stick to attack me. The woman stood between us and started scolding the man in the local dialect, ‘Turo hiko billo haike, mina khni dekyo? (Are you a feral cat, have you ever interacted with humans?)”
She explained that he believed he belonged to a Rajput clan for whom selling or renting assets was a taboo. Now I could see that he had been hit by the virus of Sanskritization where a person from a lower caste imitates the rituals and behavior of higher castes. As for its aggressive social behavior, there are many tribes in the region where women are their social face and the male counterparts mainly roam the rohi (desert) in search of food and hunting.
One of the village bus stops had ‘Dhaba 786’. It was a place to refresh before getting on the bus to Bikaner at the end of the working day. After the first day of my interaction with him, the owner of the dhaba insisted that I don’t pay for the tea as I was a guest but I never accepted his offer.
On the last day, I asked him the meaning of 786. He said he was a Muslim and it was a holy number in Islam. He also did not accept payment for the refresh. His parting words were, “I will never see you again, but I will always appreciate our relationship.”
Given the current situation, I recognize that such associations are the treasures of life.