An oasis amidst an arid zone


    As we drive through the bumpy roads of Kutch, I am reminded that the infamous rath yatra of Lal Krishna Advani, from Somnath to Ayodhya three years ago had begun only a few hundred kilometres away. The parliamentary elections a year later had spread a saffron hue all over Gujarat with 21 out of 26 seats captured by the BJP. Kutch had been no exception.
    But suddenly, the hot, scorching sun gives way and we find ourselves driving through lush green orchards. A living mirage as it were, Mundra set in the midst of dry, arid, and drought-prone Kutch. Our local guide and crusading journalist, Navinbhai Mehta has a particular reason for bringing us here.
    Tucked away below Mundra, the town, is Dhrab, a tiny village. Quiet and sleepily picturesque with its fruit orchards of kharek and chikoo, Dhrab has an ancient Shiv temple that, in a sense establishes its 450 year-old history.
    So does the lineage of its prominent residents. We drive straight to the home of the Jamdar of the village, 86-year-old Ali Mohammed, master hunter to successive Maharajas of Kutch. Reclining on the front porch of his home, he proudly claims descendancy from the Turks as other villagers gather around for a pow-wow.
    Proudly, one of them insists that we visit the local Shiv temple. Ali Jubail the Jamdar’s nephew, a Kutchi folk singer of national repute guides us there. He has recently been subject to a humiliating experience when the local police mistakenly arrested him and beat him up while on the lookout for a Pakistani agent. Being within fair reach of the border, this is not an uncommon happening in Kutch.
    It is a tiny temple tucked away by the roadside. After a look around at its quaint columns, enriched by years, we go looking for the temple priest. He is away visiting relatives with his family. Close by is the land and home of the only harijan family in the village.
    Suddenly we realise why it was that Navinbhai had singled out Dhrab for our particular attention. Except for one pundit and one harijan family, the village is entirely Muslim. For some generations now, the Dhrab Muslims have contributed to the upkeep and maintenance of their Shiv temple. A precious tradition to be kept alive.
    As we stroll back, I wander through the shade made possible by the abundance of kharek trees. A smiling woman comes up curious to see her counterpart from the city. Fresh with my discovery made possible by Navinbhai I talk to her about the temple. She is the Jamdar’s eldest daughter, home from her husband’s family after many years.
    Excitedly she calls out her mother, who then takes me to an older woman reclining on a charpai. Fatima-ji regales us with more. Twice a year, Dhrab has also played host to tirth yatris, walking their way to an important ‘tirth’ (pilgrimage) centre in north-west Kutch.  “Huge handis were pulled out by Dhrab’s women who used to cook day and night to feed the pilgrims,” she reminisces, adding, “while my mother-in-law was alive our orchards were the resting places for the faithful.” Today, automation has cut short the journey for pilgrims so, unfortunately, they bypass the warmth of Dhrab.
    Suddenly a question is put back to me. Coming from Bombay I carry an albatross around my neck. That Mecca of opportunities, that queer amalgamate of communities stands besmirched. Thousands of miles away, I reply, heavily, to queries and comments about post-riot-ridden Bombay. Mumbai ma majha nathi rai (Bombay has lost its charm) is the sombre conclusion.
    Night descends and forces a fare-well. Many promises are given and taken. For future meetings, further exchanges. But as we drive out of Dhrab into a cool, Kutch night I am left feeling that I take back with me something far richer than I was able to leave behind.
    (Archived from the inaugural, August 1993 issue of Communalism Combat; the story appeared in the Ethos section)