Minority report | Just deserts


Minority report | Just deserts

About two months back, I wrote an article for www.livemint.com, stressing the point that Rann Utsav—a popular festival under Gujarat Tourism in the desert district of Kutch—disallowed tourists requesting single occupancy bookings in tents, denying lone tourists their rights. This was after my calls and emails of reproach to Gujarat Tourism had gone unheeded. Soon after the article appeared, I was put through to Ajay Agrawal, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Rann Utsav, who courteously made amends with urgency and confirmed my single booking. He also explained how the festival had become bigger and that from 2013, Gujarat Tourism had transferred its management to a private agency. The public-to-private transfer had caused certain breakdowns and delays.

It was, therefore, ironic and funny when after reading that piece, one of my close friends wanted to join me on the trip. My entire assertion about “single occupancy” went for a toss! If Agrawal was secretly mocking me, he kept it subtle.

Last week at Rann Utsav, I actually realized that this was not a single traveller’s trip. There were times on this journey when a paradox emerged: a calming aloneness that arises from an intimate encounter with nature could leave you in dire need of company. For me, more than the entertainment-filled tent city with its Sufi-Sindhi local singers, the delicious Gujarati and Kutchi cuisine and the overall colour and pomp set up in the middle of barren land, the best part of this enjoyable trip were some unexpected moments. The prime attraction of this festival, whether you take a package tour or drive in with a group of friends, is a White Rann walk. White because this is a seasonal salt marsh. Tourists are taken to witness the breathtaking sunset (unless you choose a full moon night) in the deep West of India on the India-Pakistan border. The ecological burden of people walking on the salt marsh may need a debate but it’s a sight to file away as a deeply contemplative and meditative one, akin to a time of prayer for some. A moment suspended in silence when you are unable to decide if the resplendently elegant red-orange sun looks better in your mind when you close your eyes or should you just stare hard and unblinkingly.

While I was distracted by a foal fondly following its mum on a working shift ferrying tourists up and down the White Rann, it was only when the sun disappeared that I felt that being by myself here would have made the difference between aloneness and loneliness rather stark. I could cling to the former only because I had someone to retrace our steps back on the salty-slushy earth.

That wasn’t the only time I felt that way. We opted for another not very popular tour. A desert safari in an open jeep with a local village guide who only spoke Kutchi, to see the wetlands in the desert which attract migratory birds including Siberian cranes and the Flamingos every winter. Early morning, we drove into the desert without any road or track to guide our driver, who kept reassuring us that he had never lost the way in the 40 years of his nativity. Before plunging into the middle of nowhere, he stopped at a roadside stall to treat us to a thimble-sized cup of buffalo milk tea fragrant with cardamom. After that, all around, the landscape looked the same—thorny bushes and an endless, dusty stretch of barren, brown land without a soul in sight. Quite suddenly, we heard the tinkle of brass bells like wind chimes. Passing before us was a herd of 40-odd handsome camels egged on by their patient herder, even as some lazy or old ones staggered behind. As the camels walked purposefully, they formed what I can only describe as a symbol of easy realism. I brought back a lesson—here was a fine example of dignified servitude (and how much fuss we make when someone as much as corrects, leave alone controls, us) simply heading towards the goal. An experience to be shared with someone. Not a lonely traveller’s fare.

But it was at the final destination of this drive through the Rann of Kutch that I felt a desperate need to exclaim verbally. Despite the haunting quiet of Chhari-Dhand wetlands where the only sound is of migratory birds who casually saunter about their winter drawing room, you need to try your vocal chords even if it is to say the clichéd “wow”. Against the silver horizon, your gaze rests on the beautiful cranes (they are not in the numbers that posters like us to believe) who take flight in choreographed groups of six or eight, a stunning live performance. “It’s a divine moment,” I said, glad that I had a friend to witness and hear my awe. A single occupancy pursuit wouldn’t have made the desert half so filling.