Appearing much like a sprite, Durga Das was a willing helper and camel driver on a trip I took through the villages of Northern Rajasthan. We were following the old desert tracks from near to Bikaner the seat of a Princely State, to Jaisalmer, another fairytale turreted fortress town on the edge of India’s Thar desert.
This route took us past remote wells where the water held some quite lively creatures if you held a glass to the light; we nevertheless drew buckets to replenish our stock of cooking and camel water. Scattered acacia trees, mimosa and spiny gourds bounded thinly planted plots of chick peas, millet and sorghum if water was available.
(For those interested, our route went through Satna, Tadna, Sri Mohangarh and Jaysari Talai.)
I had the pleasure (taken at some length) of riding with Durga Das for four long days, sleeping in sandy hollows, taking long midday rests under what shade we could find. Acacia sported their thorns aggressively so they were avoided. Feathery looking clumps of Tamarisk were favoured as they were quite gentle with us, and offered the welcome distraction of a snack for the camels.
The walking pace of a camel is slower than that of a human and to cover any distance the camel must be encouraged into a loping jog. I had a strong desire to reach Jaisalmer in the span of this life, but Durga Das had a two speed camel; slow and stop. On the few occasions each day when a spurt of activity materialised, I found that country saddles were of a uniquely excruciating design resulting in an extremely tender behind. I therefore took to walking and leading this critter for tens of kilometres with the slight figure of Durga Das trotting along behind, chatting and singing with the other camel drivers.
He would never ride his beast while I walked, this being above his station, as he saw it. On one occasion when we were far behind, I entreated him to ride with me and eventually he agreed and held up a hand for me to lift him aloft. I could not believe how easily he flitted through the air, he was so insubstantial, I thought I might mistakenly propel him from one side of the camel right over the top to land on the other, but he was used to the manoeuvre and perched facing backwards with hardly a pause in his route-marching song.
It took all my sweats, twinges, gritty throat, burning face, dehydration and general western discomfort to realise, however imperfectly, what Durga Das’s day to day life was like. No wonder his physique was like a knotted string, though tough as the teak which his complexion resembled. No wonder the pleasure which he extracted from every tiny respite, be it a simple meal with crunchy chapattis cooked on a hot stone or the chance to luxuriate in scant shade, smoking a beedi, a sprinkling of tobacco wrapped in a leaf. I never saw him drink at all. How far we have become removed from these small, simple elemental pleasures in life, don’t you think ?