Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Memoirs from Gujarat: Why Gujjus are such wonderful people

The year 2015 was all about travel for me. It took me to Bombay, Nainital, McLeodganj, Dalhousie, and the United States (some of these places twice in the same year). And if that wasn't enough geographical variety, the run-up to the New Year washed me up on the westernmost shores of our beautiful country - in Prime Minister Modi's homeland. Travelling in Gujarat was in striking contrast to all my other trips of the past year. The land was arid and devoid of colour or vitality in a lot of places I visited. Everywhere you'd look, you'd find vast, naked landscapes. Your eyes would be deprived of conventional scenery, that is, unless shrubs, grasses, and rocks appealed to your senses (which was certainly the case with me). It was while on this trip that I began to develop a deeper understanding of and a profound respect for the people of Gujarat and Rajasthan. It also occurred to me that their colourful costumes, accessories and traditions could perhaps be their way of making up for the barrenness and lack of colour that characterise their desert lands. Plausible? No? Okay.

We were a group of 5 friends travelling together for the first time. Needless to say, we were super excited, especially because we knew this was the only long holiday we were going to get while at the Young India Fellowship. We travelled from Delhi to Gandhidham on the Bareilly/Ala Hazrat Express. It was a 21-hour journey and the five of us had only 2 confirmed seats in 3AC. How we managed to sleep at night and the amount of fun we had on that train journey are subjects for another post. On the journey we got acquainted with two really sweet and friendly Gujarati families who were also travelling with unconfirmed seats in the same compartment. It made us feel all the richer for not having got confirmed seats, because if we had, we probably wouldn't have gelled with them so well. We also ran into one of the two families on Day 3 in Bhuj; a lovely middle-aged Gujarati couple, who live in Delhi, and their daughter Poorvi. The uncle was witty, and he taught us how to be a smashing player at Bluff, a card game I newly learned on that very journey. The aunty was smart, immensely caring, and reminded me of my own mom, not in the least because she had the same hairdo. Poorvi turned out to be an engineer, as are 3 out of the 5 of us, and it was most amazing to know that she had ALMOST applied for the Young India Fellowship herself! We had a beautiful, if brief, reunion in Bhuj and amidst much hugging and photographing, we avowed to keep in touch. Here's really hoping we do.

The lovely Gujarati family from Delhi who made our train journey one to cherish forever.

Tired after the journey but excited to be in Gujarat.

Our itinerary mapped five cities in and around Kutch district in western Gujarat. We de-boarded the train at Gandhidham and checked in to Chandan Hotel, located right across from the railway station and undoubtedly one of the better hotels in the city. Having a Gujju friend (Priyank) with us proved to be a blessing throughout the trip - it got us many a good bargain, as also great help whenever we needed. With his help, I also began to understand and read Gujarati very quickly. Today I can proudly claim that I can't get lost in Gujarat even if I weren't able to ask anybody anything - I can read the road signs and billboards now. Mean feat for a five-day trip, eh?

Our itinerary marked on the map of Gujarat.

On Day 1, we took a local bus from Gandhidham to Mandvi beach. This was my fourth brush with the mighty Arabian Sea, after three visits to Bombay in the last two years. There is a direct road from Gandhidham to Mandvi, but the bus took a longer route that passed through Bhuj. And so our journey unwittingly took us through the city that always reminds me of the devastating earthquake that hit it in 2001. (It was only later in the trip, while exploring Bhuj and Morbi, that we discovered that the damages from 15 years ago had still not been completely undone. Seeing the destruction with our own eyes was unsettling.) We passed through the Gujarati countryside, along the Bhuj-Mirzapur road, that basically had sparse vegetation but loads of rocks, cacti and dust on both sides. This fairly uniform landscape was broken every now and then by a tiny water body, too small to be called a lake or even pond. I had studied in high school geography how the soils of semi-arid and arid areas could grow very little crops. In Gujarat I came face to face with this reality; all I could see for miles and miles on end was shrubbery and fallow croplands. Did they grow nothing, or was it off season for agriculture? And that very instant, as if in answer to my question, the rocks on my left gave way to a particularly green stretch of land with sugarcane and mustard plantations, newly sowed fields, and lush palm trees. I was taken aback for a second. Was I still in Kutch? Clearly a lot of hard work and toil had gone into turning these dry fields into arable, fertile land. The indomitable spirit of the people of Gujarat blew my socks away.

Cacti and grassy terrain...

...interspersed with the occasional canal...

...and giving way to lush green fields and palm trees. Gujarat never ceases to surprise you!

It was an entirely pristine feeling being the only tourists on the bus. As we were to discover over the next 5 days, there weren't many tourists in any of the places we went to (except at the White Rann). It got me wondering why so less people visit this immensely beautiful and culturally rich state of India. Gujarat needs a better tourism promotion strategy. Gujarat Tourism's ad campaigns starring Amitabh Bachchan clearly aren't working very well.

While hurtling down the dusty roads, I spotted a lot of temples from the window. Some stood out in the middle of fields, while others lay cramped between narrow rows of houses in urban settings. Priyank explained that Gujaratis are intensely religious people. Their daily lives, including their professions and relationships, are greatly influenced by their religious beliefs. Everything in the state in fact begins and ends with myriad deities' names. Their unfaltering faith in the Almighty certainly seems to contribute to their happy spirits and undying vivacity. Gujjus are such warm, straightforward, gracious and generous people! The flippant and comical way in which this community is painted on TV and in films may be a case of stereotyping (remember Khichdi, Kal ho Na ho, Sarabhai vs Sarabhai?), but Gujaratis really have a great sense of humour. And they absolutely love food. To quote our wonderful taxi driver (who took us to the White Rann on Day 2), "Hum Gujarati log sabko hasa hasa kar khush rehte hain." So the stereotypes have some truth to them after all! And maybe, just maybe, this inherent sense of benevolence and bonhomie also makes them a happy clan? (Inviting all Gujaratis reading this to offer their own opinions on the matter!) 

You're right - that's a religious shrine all right. But is it a temple or a mosque? Hard to tell? Well, that's the point.

Call me crazy for over-generalising, but Gujjus are also the most optimistic people I've ever seen. A little while after I had boarded the train from Delhi, I fished out my camera to take some shots - only to find the battery slot empty! An awkward realisation hit me: I must have left the battery at home. I was disappointed beyond measure, but more profound was my embarrassment at having left behind an important component of the one reason people take me on trips with them. (Kidding...I hope that's not true.) But I was bent upon not letting my camera go to waste, so on reaching Gandhidham, I paid a visit to the nearby market to look for a camera store. Acting upon a series of directions given by random locals, I managed to locate a store after a while and was promised that they'd order a battery for me and it'd arrive by the same time next day. Happy with the turn of events, I went about the rest of the day clicking pictures with my phone. The next morning, when I called up the store owner, I was informed that there was some problem in supply due to which they hadn't got the battery yet, BUT they would surely get it the next day. Not wanting to put all my eggs in one basket, as they say, I set out for the market again to look for another store. To my utter surprise and amusement, at every shop I showed up to, they wouldn't have what I needed but they would unfailingly direct me to another shop where they thought I'd get it. In the process I paid a visit to a grocery shop, a general store, and a telecom store as well. I was utterly amazed by the Gujaratis' heights of optimism!
Need I say I didn't find a battery that day?

This sign at Prag Mahal (Bhuj) says that the 'Khushboo Gujarat ki' ad film with Amitabh Bachchan was shot here in August 2010. Some proud resident of Kutch decided to add the additional bit in Hindi right below for added effect.

No matter how marvellous I found the state of Gujarat, there was this one thing that caught my eye and irked me quite a bit: most signs, billboards, and bus routes in Gujarat were in the native language. There were very little Hindi or English translations, with the only exception being the signboards put up by Gujarat Tourism, which had English as well as Gujarati. Now I do recognise the need for every ethnic and linguistic group to assert its identity, most of all in their own homeland. But to expect visitors from across the country and the world to be able to read these signs is asking for too much, isn't it? Just because I picked it up doesn't mean everyone can, or would even want to. Whether this could be explained as a case of ethnocentrism or linguistic chauvinism, or something entirely else, I leave it to each one's own interpretation.  But in many ways, it effectively shuts off the group and their land to the outside world. But I will admit here: I'm unable to connect with this feeling of linguistic pride, since I've been brought up on Hindi and English, even though my native language is Punjabi (and part Multani). I understand and regularly speak in all three languages, but having lived in Delhi all my life, I am accustomed to a multi-lingual existence where the language I use isn't necessarily an assertion of my identity or nativity. That brings me on to the threshold of an even more complex question: do I even have a native place? Can I call pre-partition Pakistan, where my roots apparently lie, my native place? I'm not sure if any signs of my family's existence across the border remain to this day. But I'd like to cross the border and find out for myself. Someday.


I have a lot more to recount from my days in Gujarat. So stay tuned, for I'll be back with a proper travelogue very soon. Till then, keep travelling, and keep smiling!

P.S. I've got some really exclusive pictures and travel tales up on my Instagram from when I was still in Gujarat. Check them out now!


Yogi Saraswat said...

Great write up with nice pictures !!

Poorvi Kansara said...

An amazing read mahima!! And the linguistic chauvinism is absolutely true! Similar situation i faced when i was in south