In our short time in Jojawar we were able to peel another layer off the onion which is India. Most of the people we have spent time with here have been from the lower castes and working hard to rise from the depths of the feudal system. (Padma is the one exception.) In Jojawar we were able to spend some time with one of the old elite. Before I get into our brush with small town nobility, let me lay out the situation a little more. Jojawar is a small town most Indians have never heard of, our driver being one. In order to get there we had to venture off the mediocre, mostly 2-lane roads to a bad 1-lane road) and drive over a small set of mountains. We passed a few villages on the way and then pulled into one of the thousands of small towns in India–the difference between a village and small town being there is an intersection in a small town going in all 4 directions. This town was like many others we had seen. The same dogs were sleeping in the road, the same cows were munching on garbage, and people wearing technicolor turbans and saris stopped what they were doing and watched us pass. The town was just like many others we passed until we pulled up to a wonderful palace. As we crossed the cattle guard that separated it from the road (you’ve got to work hard to keep the cows out here), we entered another world free from the filth and intensity which has become so familiar in our subcontinental travels. The separation was reinforced by the two staff members who banged on large drums to announce our arrival. There to greet us was a delightful gentleman of about 60. After a few pleasantries, he explained that the palace was once his family’s home and he had converted it into a hotel only 5 years earlier. We chatted breifly and he jumped into a jeep to guide some other tourists around the different villages in the area.
We settled into our rooms and I wandered off to search the town for internet (failed) and some interesting pictures of rural Indian life. I was surprised at the reaction I recieved. In some of the larger cities, people shun the camera, but here people in shops called me over to take their pictures. I would do so and then show them the result on the LCD screen. They loved it and asked me to take more. By doing so I got some great shots of a tailor, a barber, a card game, and a cricket game. It was a perfect way to meet some of the local people. For the most part they were a poor but happy group. When I had walked all four streets, I headed back to the hotel to show Anne some of the pictures and the whole family decided to go on a walk through the town. This ended up causing quite a commotion. About 20 of the local kids started following us everywhere. Asher was like a rag doll getting grabbed from all angles, so we loaded her up on shoulders and headed through the town. Some of my new photo buddies waved and called us over to join them in their various activities. We lingered for a few minutes, but it was getting late and we had dinner waiting back at the palace.
Before our walk, the hotel/palace people had asked us if we wanted to eat inside or outside. We opted for outside, not knowing that there was no outside portion of the restaraunt. Instead they set up a table in the middle of the courtyard and let us eat under the stars. It was a nice meal. The stars were bright and the Aquafina was pouring freely. After dinner we discussed our plans for the morning. Four of us decided to go on a jeep safari out to some of the local villages where people bred goats and camels. The other two decided to get an extra couple hours of sleep.
In the morning it was chilly and a light haze blanketed the desert. We walked down to the circa 1940’s jeep and met our tour guide for the morning, the owner. Anne, Kieran and McKane jumped in the back. The boys quickly fell asleep while Anne bundled up and tried to fight off the cold. I jumped in the passenger seat and we left the cozy shelter of the palace. After a few minutes, we pulled up next to a young man standing on one the dirty streets. Our host barked some orders at him, and he came over and turned the windshield down. To our suprise he then jumped into the back of the jeep with Anne and the kids. We strarted to drive through fields of wheat, coriander, and mustard. As we drove, I grilled the owner with questions. He gave me a number of interesting facts about the crops and the area around Jojawar, but primarily he gave me insight into something I just can’t understand. Traditional feudalism ceased to be a part of our society long ago, but to this man it had only ceased in name in the 70’s and in practice was not yet dead. He told me about a Muslim man in the village who had 24 kids by one wife.18 are still living. When I asked if the kids were able to get some schooling and attain a better job than their father, he explained that they hadn’t, that the man was some form of laborer, and that the kids had all followed him. He explained that the women we passed covered their faces out of deference for him and his family and their imperial role in the region. His family was responsible for gathering the “taxes” for the surrounding 100+ villages (over 10,000 people) which they would then submit to the Maharaja in Jodhpur. His family and the other Maharajas had originally moved to Rajasthan when the Mogul emperors ruled Delhi.
A little bored with the history, I pressed him more about the people. What was their schooling like, what was their ability to move up in profession? The picture he painted was a mixed bag. The people in the area are poor but there are a number of schools for the children to attend. The children’s parents lead their goats or camels 700 miles away every year into central India, but the children stay behind with their grandparents, allowing them to stay in school. When I pressed about their ability to move up the social ladder, he explained how “satisfied” they are and wondered why they would want to move up. “How could we say people still are in poverty if they all have color TV’s?” he mused. “They may look poor, but many of them are rich. (Yes, he actually said ‘rich.’) They have cell phones. These people are very happy, very satisfied.” All the while I couldn’t help wondering if they wouldn’t mind a little more comfort than their one-room, thatched-roofed houses, shabby clothing, communal wells, and lack of electricity provide. I stopped grilling him and we pulled into the camel village. Unfortunately the few camels that were not away on migration were taken to graze in the mountains at 4 am. We did meet with one of the camel drivers, and at the request of the palace owner, he let us tour his one room house. It was about 12′ by 5′ and surprisingly tidy. The camel driver had the only camel left in town in the front yard. His wife was grinding seeds and was properly veiled, out of respect. Inside his home, he had two pictures of his daughter who is now married and living with her husband’s family, and a very nice calendar from 2004 on the wall. No TV, no cell phone. He smiled while we looked around at this house and then bobbled his head at us as we left.
We continued on to a goat farming village. The goat village had a few more people in it and a lot of goats. Kieran and McKane enjoyed watching them, even though they were all cooped up in one big pen. Outside the pen there were a couple of women and one man who all spent time talking with our tour guide. After a short visit we piled back in the jeep and headed off to the mountains to feed some monkeys. Unfortunately the monkeys were not in their usual place and we needed to head back to the palace. As the jeep started picking up speed, it became clear that the windsheild was going to have to come up. Our driver yelled out something and the man got out of the back of the jeep and raised the windsheild. He nodded at the Maharaja, I mean owner, and hopped back into the rear.
As we drove home there wasn’t much left to talk about. I sat and enjoyed the mustard fields and pondered how satisfied all the people in the villages and the man in the back looked. To be fair to our driver, they did look content. Their demeanor was subdued, their bodies skinny and sun dried, but in general they seemed satisfied. Perhaps a general milieu of contentment is all an aristocrat could ever see or hope for from his vassals. And if the vassals don’t know any better, they probably can’t expect much more for themselves or their children. What century is this again?