The Men of Rajasthan

It was like one of those 1950 sci-fi movies or a black and white arty horror cinema by the young George Romero. They came out of the shadows, dark and vacant eyes, draped in knotted rags and woolen blankets. They had black eyes and black hair, and long black mustaches. And a few shouldered chestnut brown, bolt-action Enfield rifles on straps made from sacred cows.

We were in a train station, on the edge of Rajasthan and on the edge of midnight. We planned to catch the evening train into Jodhpur, nine hours away by express and in the heart of the warrior state, the second largest state in India. Our friend, Alchar, owner of the Aravali Hotel in Alwar, drove us up to the station, helped us heft our packs and showed us where to wait.

As soon as we were alone we were approached by one of the red coat porters, bare foot and turbaned with betel nut stained teeth. But since I refused to give him any rupees he gave us the cold shoulder, mumbled something to his friends, and we were suddenly plunged into the hostile, friendless and very alien world of an Indian train station at night.

A very proud tuck-tuck owener shows off his vehicle.

Illuminated only by flickering neon bulbs and warmed only by our memory of home, we marched out onto the platform filled with false pride and bravado. Each of us weighted by our packs and our fears, we marched in close formation to a wide open space and well lit location, a place we thought would be safe.

And in those dark moments of midnight, on that shabby rail station platform, we welded together as a family like musk ox facing a wolf pack. We took our stations. Salli dropped her pack, Samantha and I kept ours on, and Cassidy folded her 8-year old person down on the pile. Each of us faced each other in a way to watch each other's backs.

And surrounding us, on all sides of the platform were men. No women. No children. No tourists or aliens or scholars or poets. Only men. Dark men. Men draped in wool and cotton, men dripping in a lifetime of living on the edge of existence on the edge of India. A few of them were in uniform. Brown wools offset only by brass belt buckles, brass stars, black boots and those damn Enfield carbines. We didn't know if they'd prove friend or foe if push came to shove. Most of them had cold dark eyes that stared at us with the same indifference as a cobra.

We hunkered together, making light of our situation and confusion, joking like Abbot and Costello in the house of Frankenstein.

And the men shifted around the platform, drifting like clouds gathering around the base of a mountain. They pulled closer, sliding towards us. Almost all were draped in their woolen blankets tossed over their shoulders. Many wore turbans, and the effect was to show only their dark eyes. We continued our banter and humor with each other, masking our fear. "Imagine the story we can tell about this..." and one of us would laugh and add, "... yea, if we survive."

It had been this way all over India. Everywhere we looked it was men. On the streets of Mumbai at least 90 percent of those visible were men. On the trains and busses, in the hotels and traffic circles, only men. The few women we saw were beautiful, tough, covered in silver and brass and silk, their razor eyes surveying every moment for escape or opportunity. But women were few and far between. In fact, we were convinced that this was due to the women and girls being harbored in their homes away from the traffic and commerce of men. It was quite a surprise when we learned that census figures throughout India showed at least 20 percent more men than women. Something crude and cruel is going on here, but no one would tell us what, other than to explain about the ancient system of dowries.

Hindu marriages are typically arranged by families from an early date. They are business, pure and simple. Even the great Mahatma Ghandi was married at the age of 13. A family with a girl must amass a sizable fortune for a dowry, then arrange the marriage with a suitable boy, one with a family or promise that will benefit the family. The boy is provided a staged photo of his betrothed, the deal is sealed, and every one moves ahead with the ritual. The girl's family must spend a fortune on the lengthy, elaborate ceremony. One proud father we talked with was preparing for his daughter's marriage. Hundreds were invited, several ballrooms and meals catered, and the event seemed more like a coronation than a marriage. To do this, the father had saved money all his daughter's life, and still he had to borrow from a number of his relatives.

The story goes that in 1156 A.D. a local warlord, Rawal Jaisal consulted a desert hermit named Eesul. With his advice he abandoned his old fort and began laying the foundation for his new desert kingdom atop the hill, Tricuta. Because of its distant and safe location, Jaisalmer prospered along the main camel trading routes of Asia, the famed routes that traded in silk and spices. This land remained untouched for centuries, being the last place in India to be "forced" into signing agreements with the British.

It's no wonder why every where we went, people asked us if we had any boys, or only these two girls. One man I chatted with until the wee hours told me how he had one child, five months old. When the nurse came out of the delivery room she apologized to him, it was a girl. And he felt bad about this for two entire days, and then he looked at her and fell in love. It would be OK. He would have more children, no doubt some boys. Never once did he mention his wife in this life plan.

However, those with more girls than capital are faced with a peculiar dilemma. How to afford such a weird and twisted system? So it seems in the more rural spots of India that a dark secret occurs with some frequency--

"In the 17th century, an Italian traveler named Manucci visited the Thar Desert, and wrote in his journal: "Wells are so deep that when water is drawn out of them with the help of oxen, those who set these animals to work beat a drum as a warning that the pot is at the mouth of the well and they are about to draw water."

infanticide. This apparently happens regularly, all though no one we spoke with will admit to it other than to say that "others" do it. "It" being murder, pure and simple. The murder of girl children because of an ancient religious, culture system that respects cattle, monkeys and dogs, but not women.

We stood on the train platform as the "men" gathered around, pressing in closer. Gaping, starring, possibly threatening except we didn't know how to read the signals. And that is the trick, how does one read the signals and give back the correct responses, the messages that say "it's OK, we're friends, we come in peace."

Within minutes we were ringed in during those dark midnight hours by dozens of men. They shifted towards us silently, closing in on our tight group like vermin on the hunt. I looked around for a point of sanity, someone we could appeal to, someone we could talk with, reason with. And there was one. An older fellow, smiling and friendly eyes who spoke a few words of English. It was him I grabbed at with the zeal of a man in a flash flood reaching for a tree root. He was a vet, an ex-soldier of the Pakistani wars, now nearing retirement and his pension. He would become a farmer and live on his pension and his land, and as he explained this to me his back grew straight and his face beamed. The other men all read his posture and relaxed.

He had 25 years in the India military. Was a sergeant. Came from a farm his ancestors had sown for centuries in the heart of Rajasthan, the very place we were headed. He had three children, and oh yea also two daughters besides--like me, almost. As we spoke, more men gathered around us in the glow of the neon overhead lights, like bugs drawn to the dim glow. Occasionally he would interpret something I said to them, then they would all draw closer.

It wasn't long before the sense of threat and alienation was replaced by a feeling of being curiosities among friends. I told of my home among the high mountains. No one knew where Alaska was, but a few knew about Canada--they had uncles and neighbors who'd gone there to work.

Through the sergeant they wanted to know what we thought about India. This is almost always the second phase of questions, right after how many sons I had. Not where we'd visited in India, not where we're going, but what we thought about India, prefaced always with "India is a most poor country." And always when we lit up and talked about how beautiful and wonderful it is, they'd swell with pride.

The third phase of questions is equally predictable. What job did I have and how much money did I make? It was surprising to read in Gandhi's autobiography that exactly a century earlier, 1897, when he first went to London to go to law school, he had to be instructed by a wise friend on why this was poor and irritating behavior towards "the English."

We continued to chat, milking the same topics of sons, India and money until there was nothing left. And then we quit talking and the men drifted away like smoke until we were left alone on the platform with only our relief and laughter. We waited, and soon we saw the headlamp of the oncoming train, and heard its whistle. When it stopped in front of us the platform exploded in chaos and motion. Trains only stop in rural stations for two minutes--and you'd better get on in that time, crashing your way through herds of clambering men.

But our sergeant was there for us. He showed us our car and barked orders at the knot of men trying to scamper aboard. They parted like a biblical sea and even helped "my girls" get aboard. Within moments we were on our way into the deserts of Rajasthan, the realm of desert warriors.

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