By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
31 Dec, 2012
It was a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve, more than twenty years ago, and I was in a hamlet located deep in the Thar desert, almost on the border with Pakistan. My feet sank deep into the sand as I headed towards the bus-stop in the distance. I plodded ahead as fast as I could to catch the last bus to Bikaner. In the distance, I spotted the bus hurtling down the road, passing the bus-stop and racing ahead. I had missed it.
I simply had to get to Bikaner by the next morning, and so there was no question of going back to the hamlet. I sat down along the road, ruing my fate and hoping that another vehicle might soon pass by. It was dark by now, and intensely cold, too, for winters in the Thar can be as extreme as its summers. In a while I was joined by two potters, carrying their freshly-baked wares to Bikaner to sell. The men gathered clumps of dried grass and twigs and lit a fire, and we sucked on beedis to keep out the cold.
Vehicular traffic in the desert then was minimal—few people owned vehicles at that time and many still rode on camels. We’d almost given up all hope of hitching a ride when a truck came lumbering along. It wasn’t going to Bikaner but the driver offered to drop us off at an intersection a distance away. I hopped onto the back of the truck, clutching onto its frame as it raced ahead through miles of pure, uninhabited desert. In the dark I could make out mud huts scattered about and occasional deer—black-bucks perhaps—and enormous nilgai.
The driver deposited us quite in the middle of nowhere. There was not a sign of human habitation, not even a fire in the distance. It was late by now, and there was little chance of any vehicle passing by till the next morning. The cold was fierce, and I was miserably ill-clad for the occasion.
Not long thereafter, a camel cart came creaking up the road. ‘You’ll freeze to death if you stay here all night’, said its driver. ‘Hop onto my cart and spend the night at my home.’
‘Beware! He might be a dacoit!’ my suspicious middle-class mind at once said to me. It was as if all poor people were, by definition, untrustworthy—that’s how some middle-class minds have been trained to think, and that’s how I then thought, too. ‘He might rob you of your camera, recorder and money’, my mind went on. ‘Haven’t you been taught never to trust strangers, especially if they are poor?’
‘Forget it! I’d rather be looted by this man than die shivering in the cold,’ another bit of my brain suggested to me.
My potter friends and I jumped at the camel-driver’s offer and took our places on his cart, which slowly wound its way down the dunes till we came upon a little shack made of tin sheets.
‘Make yourselves at home,’ the man said as he drew us inside. He spread out a mattress on a large cot, indicating our bed for the night. In a short while we were feasting on hot daal and thick rotis and being regaled by our host, who ran a small brick kiln out in the desert. And then we slipped under a mountain of quilts and were soon fast asleep.
The next morning, my middle-class mind was again at work. ‘Check your bag to see if he’s stolen anything,’ it commanded me. Of course everything was intact, and I want to think that I detested myself for letting such a thought creep into my mind. After a sumptuous breakfast, our host took us back to the road on his cart and insisted on waiting till the bus for Bikaner arrived.
My middle-class mind, now suitably chastened, suggested I should offer the man some money for his hospitality. But he resolutely refused. ‘It’s our dharam—our religion—in the desert, you see, to help people in distress. How can you pay, or I receive payment, for it?’ he said as he forced the money back into my pocket.
The bus arrived. The man gave me a heart hug and helped me get on. And then, as I turned back, I saw him slipping below the dunes on his cart, heading back to his shack in the middle of nowhere.
Letting a stranger into your home, feeding him and putting him up for the night was his dharam, the man had said. He had few worldly possessions of his own and he lived in a little hovel, but yet he believed that sharing even these was his dharam. And what about miserable middle-class me? If this man or someone like him—a poor peasant from the desert—ever came to my middle-class home and sought a place for the night, would I even speak to him, leave alone let him in? Might I not, instead, instinctively shoo him away or even report him to the police as a ‘suspicious character’?
So much, then, for me and my miserable middle-class morality.