If we ever stayed long enough in one camp, I would be able to describe precisely how long it would take for me to stumble towards a well to gather water for the mothers and aunts who prepared our breakfast and packed our lunches. It would take no longer than an hour I can say for certain.
The location of campsites where we settled for a night or two or a week during our journey has been stored as collective knowledge; no single person knows where we will stop for the night, but collective intuition makes us pause and resume. The same collective knowledge has ensured that there will be water not too far away from where we rest.
I prefer the months where we walk through the soft ground in the vast openness of brown land than the hot tar motorway, it is gentler to my feet and a sweeter for my eyes. The camels and goats agree with me for different reasons. The absence of blazing cars show a different relief in their faces.
We always walk in a line; I do not know why. When we walk across the thorny hilly region of Koni or the flat green pastures of Topla, we never widen as a group. The line is often long, and I do not interact with the head or tail while we walk. On the motorways, few slow down and point phones towards us. Others will stop and try to buy a kid or calf and some others stop to sip a drink of camel-milk tea.
I have been told, “Your red (sequenced) turban is magnificent!” I have been told, “All the wisdom of the lands is within you young man”. I have been asked, “Do your cracked heels know no comfort of shoes?” But it is the women who they are most intrigued by. Often, I have seen some of our members complain “Whatever we say, whatever we do, you write it down!"
When we pass through a village the long line scatters for moments. I go to trade the salt that we had collected 6 moons ago while others who are fortune-tellers, conjurers, Ayurveda healers find their way to the village market. Some others who are jugglers, acrobats, grindstone makers, storytellers, snake charmers, animal doctors, tattooists, basket makers only scatter when they believe that the village is prestigious enough for them to share their skill.
All together we take steps, one after the other.
While waking on an upward slopping motorway, between two sandy hills filled with prickly shrubs on either side, the kind that can pierce a foot; there was an abrupt stop in the line.
The line never stops.
58 camels and 250 (+/-) goats always have the preference of way. I peeped towards the head of the line to see if I could gather what had occurred. The goats starting to feel irritable and anxious with this sudden stop. After a long minute and a half, Ghunnu the fastest boy came running by announcing gently to members “There is a toll gate ahead and they have stopped Giddi who was in front”
My face held a clueless-confused-helpless expression, much like that of our goats.
As high as the desert trees, with beautifully curled eyelashes Giddi was the oldest camel in our tribe. With mascara eyes and a black turban, Gondil, the most talented man walked alongside him.
Anxious minutes were passing and I did not know how to respond to this news. The mind can wander and create possible situations. The passing of time only furthers the plausibility of these possibilities.
The change had of course been gradual. When I was allowed to sit on top of the camels with our belongings there were fewer motorways in our journey. Our walks were slower as there was plenty for the animals to eat at most hours of the day. We could walk at an easier pace during the day as the sun did not burn our necks. Now, most cars on the motorway have no one in front, the buses travel on batteries and fast trains are cutting across many of the trails we walk.
As my mind wanders Ghunu, the fastest boy returns from the tail end with a little more panic in his voice “Some ten tucks with armed personnel are blocking the motorway from behind”.
Gondil the most talented man had spoken to me about the past and the reason why our ancestors walked. “They walked to escape the control of powerful men who acted for rich men.” On late nights, as the women would cook Gondil would preach his ideas in the darkness “We’re all walking together into a challenging century” Gondil had said. “Issues of water scarcity, disaster, starvation, conflict, inequalities that are spoken of across continents – come up on our walks, again and again.”
The other members would agree and add “It’s very concrete. It’s not an abstraction. In an age of globalism, walls are going up paradoxically instead of coming down.”
“So how do we move together into a hopeful future?” I had asked
“Look for rain, like Gia and their troop, share what you have like the camels of Gadulia, spread new ideas like the elders who have walked.” was Gondil’s response.
I was not convinced by this abstract response. Tearing down walls. Sharing and compassion. These ideas seemed valid for communal survival, but not practical even just amongst us.
From the head of the line, I could now see Gondil walking alongside the sweet camel Giddi with a face of a determined person facing defeat. He was not communicating but his 13-inch sharp dagger was reflecting the rays of the sun as he made his way towards the tail end.
We, the Gadulia tribe had lived in harmony with our environment, though over time, attitudes towards us began to change. Administrators disparaged us as vagabonds and criminals, sowing prejudice that has survived many years. The modernizing country of call centers and consumer-obsessed youth have had scant use for acrobats or magicians or pickled wasps. We had in our own way built a wall to isolate ourselves from the human world around us and now there had been an attempt to cross the boundaries we had created. Gondil’s exposed dagger meant confrontation. A Gadulia exposing their dagger in daylight had meant that we might not move ahead today without losing blood and life.
“Gondil, tell me that my vision is distorted” I mumbled with a weak heart.
All the wisdom of the land is within you is what passersby had said. Walking through villages where the air was harsh to breathe and people moved with bent backs did inform me.
To move is human, I believed. The villages made me learn that the forces that compel people to uproot themselves have been accelerating. Labor shortages, political upheaval, tech disruption have created inhabitable environments. Is this why our forefathers decided to walk? To escape? Did they struggle to let go of a possible future that will never be? Is this what is inspiring Gondils dagger today? All the wisdom of the land is within me.
I believed that we walked for the flowers, we walked so that bees and bugs can stop to ask us for directions, we walked for an invitation to drink tea, we walked for the herbalist to gather mushrooms and insects to cure disease, and we walked for the pickled wasps to give us strength. But today we walk through highways and concrete. And today it seemed that we might not walk again.
The Gaudia Lohar walk their entire lives. There may have been few who walked outside the line for short periods; Giddi the camel included. Our world is a never-ending journey of movement. Our home is not just a concrete or mud box. Our home is the large open sky that we sleep under each night, our home is the rocky terrain, rolling dunes, wetlands, barren tracts of land filled with thorny scrubs, river-drained plains, plateaus, ravines, and wooded regions. Our home is also the collective and today our home had been robbed.