Jodhpur and the Thar Desert by Suzanne Blair

July 16, 2010

Firstly the small town of Jodhpur. Right on the edge of the Thar Desert it is dry, parochial and very traditional. In summary charming. It is summer here, hence the high temperatures of 45 degrees. The south east monsoon is predicted to arrive in July. The underground aquifers which supply the water systems are being depleted rapidly and this along with a diminished and an increasingly unreliable monsoon make water an imperative problem in Rajasthan.

I am drinking 5 litres of water a day effortlessly – 2 litres when I wake up in the morning replenishes the nightly sweating. But I am sleeping like a baby – 8-9 hours under the humming fan – I have always loved that.

I am continually surprised at how little hassling there is in India now. I cannot forget India in the 1970s when being on the streets was just so difficult – one was besieged by beggars, rickshaw drivers and other characters. Jodhpur it is quite benign and certainly very easy. As part of my work I am researching poverty figures in India. The historical figures are of particular interest to me – the development since the 70s has been quite remarkable. It is most encouraging and I find it particularly interesting having this historical comparison.

Secondly the family I am living with – the Sharma parivar. There is my host sister Kawaliti, host brother Sharma –ji, their 2 sons, Amit and his wife Anu and their little girl Angel; plus the younger son Ajit who is at university. They have a Labrador called Annie. They are all lovely. Kawaliti and Sharma-ji are very traditional – Kawaliti speaks little English and she and I spend some time together speaking Hindi (me trying). She is very patient with me although she never corrects me and I find it very very difficult to understand what she is saying.

I have my own room and bathroom upstairs with a cooler, fan and fridge. All very comfortable.

Ajit is 30 and has just started an electrical shop. Sharm-ji will soon retire from an Indian Government Transport job. He is a Chief Manager of Transport Operations. He is looking forward to retiring and will pursue spiritual matters as per the 4th stage of the Hindu life cycle. Anu the daughter –in- law works at a University in administration and teaching. Kawaliti gets up at 5.30am each day and does her puja. She cooks all day for the family – the various members (including me) just come and go. Her cooking is wonderful. I sit in the kitchen with her and watch her cooking and ask questions (in Hindi). Up north here rice is not eaten so much (too dry to grow) so we eat a lot of dal and bread. The carbs in the food have to be seen to be believed. I am expanding at the rate of knots. I have had some lovely salwer kamiz made and they are so loose that it does not matter. I cannot get into any of my pants from Australia now. I will need to be loaded onto a single jet to get back home.

Thirdly my work.

I am working in micro finance. The company I am working for is a for profit organization called Ujjivan Financial Services Pty Ltd. It is a Grameen Bank replicator – although their target markets are the urban poor women. I am assessing the training given to these women after they apply for a loan. I have observed the training along with an interpreter/speaking with the trainers and customer service managers. The combination of the twin objectives of financial viability and social performance in these organizations is interesting.

I have spent the last 4 weeks in two Branches flitting around Jodhpur on the back of a motor cycle (my dupatta – the long scarf – flying back in the wind – just like in the Bollywood movies) with Customer Relationship Staff. We visit the homes of clients where various different types of meetings are held. The micro finance model is based on groups of 5 women who form what is called a Joint Liability Group – ie they agree to take on the risk of loan repayments of all the members of their group. They don’t have to put forward any collateral as they have none. We sit on the floor on a mat and the meeting proceeds. As its Rajasthan there is colour everywhere in that tiny room – a sea of red, purple, orange and yellow saris if they are Hindu women/and the salwar pants if they are Muslim. I can now pretty much identify Hindu and Muslim women respectively by what they wear. Muslim women also don’t wear a bindi. Being able to speak some Hindi has proven to be a great asset in forming relationships with the women during the meeting. However I sometimes have a translator there as well. The lending model is highly prescribed. The women repay loans in weekly installments at a meeting; if they are late or don’t appear they are fined; they are able to move through different loan cycles ie the loans get bigger and bigger each year as they prove their credit worthiness. Top up loans are available after the first 6 months. Both Branches I have visited have 100% repayment rates. 70% of the women are illiterate. Staff are incentivized for new business – but the incentive part of their salary is quite small compared to some other micro finance organizations. Ujjivan places equal weight on client retention. I have learned heaps.

Getting to work at the first Branch was so interesting. The bus was always full of Rajputs – white dhotis, blazing red turbans and amazing weathered faces. I would like to make these wonderful faces the goal of my photographic endeavours here (some of you would know that when I was living in southern India my photography centred on the change of seasons and how it impacted on agriculture there). Photographing Rajput faces as a project is a bit intense though as one is always having to ask permission to put the camera up to a face.

Fourthly my leisure time. What else do I do? Well I have really just gotten into a rhythm which is nice. I like spending time with my host family; and socially my host sister – we have some good laughs in Hindi.

All my good plans for exercise (yoga, Bollywood Dance lessons, swimming) have been dropped – except a saunter in the pool. I get home from work about 6/7pm feeling like I just want to sit!!!! (even though I have been doing that for most of the day!!!). After all its been 45 degrees all day.

I have been to the colour Therapist. He asked me some questions and ascertained that mauve is the best colour for my well being and will generate good reactions to me from others.

We have all gone to Udaipur for a mid assignment break. Miniature paintings, rugs, textiles, clothes – I am in heaven. But one has to be so careful - as what looks good here does not necessarily look so good in Australia. The number of salwer suits I have bought – always with the rationalization that I will wear back in Australia. And of course I seldom do.

Last weekend I went to a very old desert town called Osian. It’s a sacred Hindu and Jain site with 2 beautiful temples. Small, stuck in the middle of rolling sand dunes, tiny white-washed blue homes with an archaic simplicity, rudimentary architecture in the vernacular – I just loved it.

I have forayed up to Umaid Place – it was built between the 1920s and finished during the second world war. It demonstrates the last gasp of the Maharajas under the British Raj. The Maharaja who built it used to take polo teams to Britain and built aerodromes in Rajasthan for his flying pursuits (Jodhpur had an airport before Delhi). The Place has 300 rooms and is massive. Some rooms are a hotel now. Only a few are open to tourists.

As always I just adore to shop for clothes and textiles here. Jodhpur’s specialty is wood carving and antiques. There are heaps of big stores nearby. Temptations all around. There is also several outlets of Delhi –based designer stores nearby with fabulous stuff with a more sort of western take. They are a couple of minutes away too. I will be getting into them some time also.

Friday nights some of us went go to On the Rocks (it is an eating and drinking place –quite nice – with outdoor areas and music if you want it inside) or the cinema. The latter is good to attune the ear to Hindi (desperately needed by me)

Finally wandering around the Old City of Jodhpur – all buildings are “white-washed blue” – is always a lovely experience. It’s truly beautiful. Getting invited into people’s homes there; sitting with them and drinking tea; having your hands henna covered (I have learnt that it takes 8-9 days to disappear and is not allowed in more formal workplaces); practicing Hindi (when they want to practice English – that’s ok – we just talk in the respective language); etc etc. I am a 30 rupee rickshaw ride away – takes about 5 minutes to get to the Old City.

Its all such fun and a wonderful way to learn in depth about India.