Oasis in the desert
The sun is out, hot and golden against the gold sandstone fort at Jaisalmer. I have melted into delightful relaxation on the roof-garden of our beautiful guesthouse in this western corner of Rajasthan. Our hosts are playing a mixture of chillout and local music (think: the early scenes of Latcho Drom), the food is great, the 33 Hindu gods are in their heavens and all is right with the world…
Lying here, I can see boys flying their fluttering scraps of square plastic high and higher in the Yves Klein blue – a kite, to me, is an embodiment of hope, of wishing, of love: tug too hard and the dream comes crashing to your feet; let-go your attention and off it goes; but maintain just the right amount of trust and care, and you can fly any whichway.
We visited the red-sandstone fort at Jodhpur yesterday en route here. The palaces inside are a stunning array of colour and light, marble interplay with glass baubles and panes, glazed tiles and paintwork. I should have liked to have lived there as the Maharina (although I’d give the whole jumping onto my husband’s funeral pyre business a miss).
We headed west through the semi-arid edge of the Thar desert (the world’s most densely populated desert), passing convoys of soldiers heading our direction, reminding us of our proximity to the Pakistan border and the heightened tensions. Yesterday the Indian government apparently test-fired its BrahMos supersonic cruise missile (developed by India and Russia) in a village nearby us. I didn’t hear it. Military jets continually fly overhead as lie here watching the children scramble in the mounds of plastic bags and other garbage at the foot of the fort. One boy has been trying for the past hour to throw a ball or something to his friend on the wall of the fort, but it never gets more than 3/4ths of the way up before falling back. Still he tries – it’s pretty mesmerising actually.
This is a state where the people have lived for millennia with arid conditions (less than 100mm rain/year) but things are changing. The government-built Indira Gandhi Canal supplies water to the region, allowing new types of agriculture to flourish and people are relaxing their frugal water-usage. Ahead lies worsening drought according to climate models, and it looks like it will bring devastation here. Already, unsustainable water use is visibly causing some of the centuries-old fort walls to collapse.
A minor row is brewing between the state and its neighbour Gujarat, after one of Rajasthan’s government ministers reportedly mooted stopping the water supply from a dam on the Mahi river (which runs into Gujarat and must legally supply that state with 40,000 million cubic feet of water per year for irrigation). In response, Gujarat leaders have threatened to stop supplying electricity to Rajasthan from their dam on the Narmada river. These are interstate water/hydro wars – the one brewing between India and Pakistan has the potential to turn nuclear.
I am trying to tempt a friendly gecko to come out from its hideyhole on the ledge next to me, but I’m rubbish at catching flies for it. Overhead, below the irritating military jets, crows chase off a kestrel. On the street below, a peacock is standing in turquoise splendour. There is some mysterious disease afflicting the peacocks in one of the districts of Rajasthan. It has killed two outright and causes temporary paralysis of others, so that feral animals easily get them. Nobody knows what is causing it – perhaps it’s some kind of pesticide. There’s a bird hospital run by the stricly vegetarian Jain sect, in Delhi, that treats all birds, but accepts birds of prey on an outpatient basis only because they eat meat! India: you couldn’t make it up.