09 July 2007

Old and young; past and present

Tuesday 6 February 2007
As usual, the adjutant storks are resting, hunched and neckless, on a river beach just below the railbridge. One stalks—the play on words can't be avoided; this is how they move—across the mud, then lifts into the air for a few metres before settling. Huge birds; weird; they look as if they've stepped straight from the mind of Arthur Rackham.

I walk back to the Seaview Hotel, with mixed feelings about leaving Mandvi. Perhaps I should have stayed longer, checked into the cheaper Rukhamavati where A. had stayed, explored a little more, become a little less of a novelty. I feel as if I'm just beginning to become known—by the Omlet Centre man and his staff, by the waiters at the Shree Krishna (although I wouldn't have eaten there again), by the man I'd bought chai from for the last two mornings, and by the old seller of bananas. I'd bought another two from her while I waited for the Omlet Centre to open; again, she'd treated me with an efficient courtesy and honesty that made me feel far more welcome than the shouted, “Hallo!”s of kids—ostensibly welcoming and friendly but often with a kind of provocative undertone, as if pushing to see what response they'll get, or as if I'm less a human being than an interactive opportunity to practise their English—“What is your name?”; “What is your country?” Mostly I respond with simple, good-humoured answers, but it would be nice to hear, “Welcome to India,” or “Welcome to Mandvi,” or the like, far more frequently than the rare occasions I've heard it.

But these are just words—mine written here and theirs yelled on the street—and far more important are the gestures and interactions, like the efforts of the Omlet man to teach me a few words from his world, and the courtesy of the elderly seller of bananas when she checked I was happy with the two she'd selected.

But the restlessness to be on the move again has set in. I'm already beginning to think ahead to Darjeeling and Nepal, and realising I no longer have the luxury of taking my time. Perhaps Nepal won't meet what few expectations I have, but I don't want to find myself wishing I'd spent longer there. I check out of the Seaview, carry my bags downstairs and step straight onto a bus leaving for Bhuj.


As I walk back in the evening I notice a glow from an oven in a large, open-fronted shop. It's a bakery, and the man sliding loaves into the oven with his long-handled paddle sees me and waves. I wave back and veer off the alleyway to go over, to have a closer look and say hello. The baker comes over briefly to shake my hand, as does the man sitting at the front of the bakery, arranging sliced loaves. He even offers me a cigarette. I admire the loaves, the ovens, the smells. And then the baker returns, holding out two, freshly baked, warm meringues.

Thursday 8 February 2007

The dyer and fabric printer, Khatri Musa Tarmohmad tells us he's been doing this all his life; his family has been in the trade for hundreds of years. It's in his bloodand literally, too. His hands are so darkened with black-purple stains and wrinkled and cracked that they look as if they belong to a burned body; his feet have a similar appearance. The concept of personal health and safety seems completely absent, not just here at Musa's small operation, but everywhere I've been in India. In Bhuj, for example, I walked past a reconstruction site where workers were cutting and grinding huge blocks of creamy yellow stone using power tools. Dust everywhere, the men covered in it. The noise as I walked past would have been painful if I hadn't protected my ear on that side with a finger, yet none of the men wore any protective gear. No earmuffs, no dust masks, no steel capped boots—most wore open plastic sandals, flip-flops, or no footwear—no safety goggles. None of the men will be able to hear properly; this intensity of noise will severely damage their hearing, quickly and irreversibly.

Who employs them? Has he ever considered what he's doing to these men? Perhaps, if questioned about the noise, he just says, “No problem. They get used to it. After a while they don't notice it.”

Or is it that human life is so cheap and expendable here? Someone dies when a slab of stone falls on him, or he falls from a rickety scaffolding and breaks his back—“He had an accident.” There will always be plenty more to take his place. When a job is so hard to get, do you turn one down because it will destroy your hearing? How often does your choice amount to silicosis and an early death or providing for your family?

Is the lack of industrial safety just accepted as part of life? Should it be? These things are unacceptable now in places like New Zealand, but go back a few decades and the situation wasn't much different from modern India (I think). What is the moral objection to allowing—or requiring—people to work in situations that will damage them? Employers are often quick to point out that protective equipment and safe working conditions mean extra costs, which will reduce the number of people they can employ. This, of course, assumes that profits must remain the same; that the purchaser of the product or service won't pay a premium to know the workers are being looked after; or that the workers will refuse to accept lower wages than colleagues employed by less ethically motivated employers. A good case can be made for Government intervention—for legislation requiring protection of workers. I don't know if India has any such legislation, but I've seen no indication of it, or no indication it's enforced. In fact, the only kind of encouragement I've seen to act safely has been the road safety signs urging married drivers to “divorce speed” and drivers in general to “be soft on curves,” and, because “life is a journey,” to “complete it.” These signs are universally ignored.


At a Rabari village, occupied mostly by old people and small children, we're given tea to drink from saucers. It tastes of goat's milk. Here, we seem to be at least as fascinating to our hosts as they are to us. Parbat tells us they say we're only the second group of foreigners they've ever seen—the first were the French and New Zealand women yesterday. This seems hard to believe, but Parbat insists. However, even if there's a misunderstanding, there's no question we're a novelty and little doubt we're a welcome diversion from day-to-day life. Still, all four of us, I think, feel a degree of uneasiness about the inevitable effects of our presence—today, it's probably positive, but as Parbat and perhaps others bring more visitors, what consequences will follow? The novelty will wear off, possibly to be replaced by feelings of being inconvenienced or treated as exhibits; from another perspective visitors like us might be seen as a source of income. Eventually, a way of life will adapt—and adaptation is a process of replacement, meaning the disappearance of part of what currently exists. Whether any, some, or all of that should be lamented depends on your perspective, but I suspect those who lament most are those who observe the changes, not those changing. This, I suppose, is the hypocrisy of tourism—the observer lamenting the changes induced by the observing. As tourists, we crave authenticity and therefore will pay more for a rug embroidered for the family camel than one produced to be sold to tourists. What's the difference? Put the two side by side and they'd appear identical, but one contains a meaning, an awareness of relationship, that the other lacks. Can this be recognised without knowing the history of the pieces? Is it more than just particular physical characteristics like the regularity of the pattern, the frequency of slight imperfections, the size of the stitch? I suspect the answer's yes, with the proviso that it depends on the sensitivity of the the person feeling the two rugs. Moreover, I'd speculate that the quality—the meaning embroidered with the thread—has a fragility that means it can diminish with too much inappropriate attention, or the lack of appropriate attention. Exhibited behind glass in a major museum, to be gawked at by hundreds of thousands of viewers overloaded with the viewing of other articles, a rug like this would be at risk of losing its significance.

Perhaps. A contrary argument could be made, but I doubt there's any way to decide which contains more truth—whatever that is. Moreover, both might be true. Perhaps the observer, or the person trying to understand the rug, is what's important—but have I already said that? In short, what I think I'm trying to say is that the intention of the embroiderer gets sewn into the article along with the thread, and this is not just a metaphorical device, it's a real but non-physical attribute that reveals itself in differing degrees to different people—not at all to those holding a purely mechanistic worldview, and to a high degree to those who have spent many years not only studying and appreciating textiles, but also thinking about and trying to empathise with the lives of others [1].


All the villages we've visited had been rebuilt after the 2001 earthquake, and comprise mostly angular, concrete houses. Some people—visitors—apparently find this disappointing and would like to see the villagers living again in traditional houses plastered with mud and cow dung. This certainly would be more in keeping with the preconception of how people live in these local villages—there's an incongruity between the traditional clothing and the stark, concrete walls—but this is how they live now. I forgot, or never thought, to ask Parbat to query some of the inhabitants about whether they preferred the new structures or thought wistfully, at least at times, of their old, traditional houses.

But the last village we visit projects an air of defeat. Dirtier, more littered, and apparently less looked-after than the earlier villages, most of its inhabitants seem very old. But not all: nearby, an elderly woman sits with a young girl of perhaps 6–8 years, a girl already wearing the ornate gold earrings and nose stud typical of older women. She wears, also, an achingly sad expression, as if she knows something terrible about the world; something that denies her any possibility of being happy. Parbat smiles, tries hard to get her to laugh, to break that grievous spell, or at least to smile back, but she continues to gaze into an immense, melancholy distance. Even when she looks at one of us she seems to be looking further, through and beyond. Whatever the cause of her apparent sadness, its effect is heartbreaking. My own smiles are futile; in the face of this sorrow they feel shallow and forced. Helpless, I turn away.

One of the oldest women I've seen all day sits cross-legged on a charpoy [2], painstakingly rounding off the corners of small shards of mirror on a section of steel tubing, methodically shaping the small pieces of mirror to be incorporated into the region's characteristic embroidery. Old hands, hardened with age and work; blurred tattoos extending up her arms. Her index finger and thumb are covered with dust and fine particles of glass, and I wonder how often she ends up with tiny splinters in her hands. I ask Parbat to translate.

Yes,” she says, “sometimes my hands hurt, but what can I do?”

She goes back to the painstaking work—something I guess she'll continue for the rest of her life, or until her vision fails or her old, glass-pierced hands can no longer handle the small, unforgiving shards.

An old woman and a young girl in a ruined village. Past and present. And what of the future?

That evening, I found a photographer's shop close to the hotel and managed to get a set of prints run off. I gave them to Parbat the next morning and he distributed them the same day.

[1] I discussed this later with Ferdinand, the Austrian expert on textiles. Even before I'd finished explaining, he'd begun to nod in agreement. Yes, he said, it's true. He understood.
[2] Or “charpoi”. “Charpoy “ is the British word (of Indian origin) for a manjaa
: a bed with a mattress of knotted rope.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1, 2. "Sometimes my hands hurt, but what can I do?"
4, 6. Rabari women, old and young.

3. Khatri Musa Tarmohmad, the 32nd generation of dyers and block printers.
5. At the silk sari manufacturers.
7. Parbat, the only Rabari guide in India.
8. I asked her elderly guardian before photographing her.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor