Once we set foot into the sleepy town of Pushkar, we couldn’t help but be immersed in its sights, sounds and smells. The desert glowed with the hues of sunrise; and the entire landscape soon transformed into a flurry of activity right before our eyes.
As we took a stroll amidst the ensuing interaction of man, beast and nature; the Pushkar Camel Fair lured us into its charismatic den. Appropriating the gypsy lifestyle, most of the villagers who grew up travelling from one fair to the other all their lives treasure their ancient history and beliefs.
One look at the mela, and you realise that on one level it is complete chaos while on the other there’s an element of mystery in its existence. Lined with thorny shrubs, the narrow winding paths in the fair ground led travellers and wanderers into the colourful world of the mela.
The entire arena bore semblance to an elaborate fantasy. The still air was laden with a strong scent of burning wood; smoke from choolahs and kaunns (bonfire) rose and engulfed the entire ground in a haze.
And, in the middle of the desert, as the bellowing groan of hobbled camels and clattering of sturdy hooves filled the air with a symphony of sounds; you hear them loud and clear. Occasionally, breaking into fits of giggles, their mischievous eyes follow you at every step; their little feet leaving trails on sand. As you get closer, you begin to realise that the children roaming about freely in the grounds have, over the years, adopted a lifetyle that is fraught with many perils.
This is a story of those tiny tots whose futures though uncertain and grim are shrouded in mystery.
With pale rubbery skin and hair entangled in a mesh of dirt and sand, Ram looks like any other slum kid. His tattered clothes and dishevelled appearance beg for sympathy. He is forced to be one of the bread winners of his family. Therefore, he has a task at hand.
Ram has identified his next potential target. He lingers on for a while and we almost catch a glimpse of contempt in his eyes. Carrying a wicker basket filled with dung, he walks towards a gentleman, changing his demenour slightly, and narrates his disheartening story – one that he has practised a few times…
“Hello. I have no home and I haven’t eaten in days. Please give me some money. My brother and I are very hungry.”
When the gentleman politely refused, Ram became more insistent and said in a voice cracking with emotion, “My mother and father died a long time ago. We are two brothers who have no home and noone to go to. Most of the days we sleep hungry. It is very difficult for us. If our parents were alive, our lives probably would have been different. I just need Rs 10. Please spare me some money.” The gentleman eventually caved in and gave him some money while Ram walked away with a big smile.
Meanwhile an old villager who was passing by told us that these children were liars and all they cared about was making a quick buck. For a meagre sum of Rs 5 or Rs 10, they are willing to claim that their parents are dead. It is interesting to see how the mela opens up avenues for underprivileged folks to make easy money.
As tourists venture bravely into the arena, hordes of kids are usually seen running towards the baffled lot screaming and demanding ‘Money money money, Rs 10, chocolate, biscuit.” It is quite an amusing sight. Sometimes, the naughty ones walk up to you and ask, “Pen hai? Saabun hai? Nahin hai? Toh Paise de do! (Do you have a pen? Soap? No? Okay, then give me some money)”
While some of the children travel with the villagers all round the year hopping from one fair to another; the others live in the neighbouring slum areas. These kids cannot afford to go to school but they are quite happy doing what they do. When they are not hassling tourists, kids are often seen collecting camel or cow dung which is dried and later sold to herders and villagers as fuel.
In most of the cases, the parents train their children to swindle unassuming travellers all the time in a bid to earn a living. Ultimately, the kids pick up the tricks of the trade and no longer do they need their parents to remind them that they have a job to accomplish. Over the years, the tricks are tweaked and acts get more dramatic. Either they are trained to recite sad stories or they are dolled up to earn money. And, this has set a dangerous trend. Young boys and girls are dressed in traditional Rajasthani attires or some outrageous costume and sent to the fair by their parents. Faces smeared in cheap makeup, children are seen strutting in style all over the mela. What better way to catch the attention of photographers, after all?
One afternoon, as we walked towards an uphill that was dotted with herds of camels and horses, we were stopped by a beautiful young girl. Ringed with kohl, her eyes were a light creamy amber and her dusky skin glimmered in the pale winter sun. In a sweet voice she said, “Oh babu, mera ek photo le lo. (Oh babu, please take a photograph),” and quickly followed it with a “Photo le liya, ab paise do. (You clicked my photograph. Now, you have to pay me).” A little while later she was seen smoking a cigarette with great panache and style as a group of photographers surrounded her. She felt fabulous and all the attention she received was important to her. Ironic as it may seem, her job was to wake up, look gorgeous and get to work everyday.
In their naivete, the children have gradually mastered the art of manipulation and condescension. Many of them were also seen walking around in bright turbans and traditional instruments like Ravanhatta whilst negotiating deals like ‘Do gaane ke Rs 15′ with customers.
Moreover, leading a vagabond lifestyle comes naturally to most of the toddlers. For instance, 11-year-old Nimani has been travelling for almost eight months in a year with her family ever since she was born. We spent a lot of time with her family during the mela. Dressed in a salwar suit with bright pink ghoonghat (veil) on her head, one evening, she went about explaining in animated gestures that some camels are more aggressive than the others. However, half way through the conversation, something caught her eye.
“Main ek minute main wapas aati hoon. Aap log yahin pe ruko. (I will be back in a minute. You guys wait here.”
And, off she went, straightening her veil and carrying an empty pot on her hand to a group of tourists yelling “Money Money Money Photo Photo.” A few minutes later, she came back with a triumphant smile and said, “Aaj maine bohat paise kama liye. (Today, I earned a decent sum.)”
Considering how most of the villagers lead a nomadic life or are primarily wanderers who travel throughout the year, children are left with no choice but to assume roles assigned to them by their elderly folks. Stricken with poverty, these families don’t have anyone else to take care of their children back in the villages.
Their economic condition becomes a curse and the dreaded realisation of being born without the right to hope, the right to dream doesnot make it any easier for them. And, as our minds drifted with thoughts about these children and their lifestyles, we were overcome with helplessness and grief. And, as we made our way to the busy market, a little girl walked up to us and asked us with all sincerity, “Mujhe apne saath leke jaaoge apna desh? (Will you take me away to your country)?”…
Given a choice, none of these children would want to lead lives of misery or deceipt. While their hearts long for a world where mankind does not have to live a life of despair or sufferance, their minds draw parallels between wishful thinking and their current reality. It is a battle of survival for them. At such a young age, these little dreamers have resigned to fate and given up all hopes for a better life – one that doesn’t require them to portray a character; one that doesn’t require them to lurk in the shadows of hardship; one that makes them aspire to have an identity.
Written By : Akshatha Shetty & Piyush Goswami