Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A snippet from 'Where the gods give up caste'

A snippet from 'Where the gods give up caste' from Floating Weeds on Vimeo.

Theyyam is an ancient ritual-dance from North Kerala. Older, more spectacular and more socially relevant than the famous Kathakali.

'Theyyam', comes from 'deivam', Malayalam for god. Theyyam is traditionally performed by the lowest castes. When the performer dons the Theyyam costume, he transforms into a representation of god. In ancient Kerala, Theyyam was the only way the suppressed could rise above and question the caste and feudal systems.

'Where The Gods Give Up Caste', is a personal tribute to this ancient ritual and to all the Theyyam artistes of North Kerala.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where the gods give up caste! (Pilot)

Where the gods give up caste! (Pilot) from Floating Weeds on Vimeo.

‘Where the gods give up caste!’ is a look at the origin of Theyyam (a traditional dance form of North Kerala, and predecessor to the more famous Kathakali) and the role it, together with other art and cultural expressions, can play in creating a casteless, borderless society.

Theyyam is a traditional dance form of North Kerala. A form not as famous as Kathakali but no less illustrious, no less colourful, no less engaging, a lot more ancient. 'Theyyam' or 'Deivam' literally means God. It was originally devised, arguably, as a form of expression wherein the lower castes not allowed entry into temples created their own. When they donned the Theyyam they became Gods and mingled with man casteless, creedless, without any prejudice.

Caste system, comparable to racism, and segregation based on religion is still rampant in India. I was brought up in a household where there was no place for caste or religion. In this film I explore the connections of Theyyam with caste, and compare it with the role the other arts and crafts of North Kerala have played in tackling casteism and communalism.

This film is not only my statement against caste and communalism it is my tribute to the various art forms and the people of Kerala and in specific my awe at one of the brightest and most colourful phenomena, Theyyam, and the people behind the art.

Fifty years apart: Tales from Sarbatwalla Chowk (Pilot)

Fifty years apart: Tales from Sarbatwalla Chowk (Pilot) from Floating Weeds on Vimeo.

Fifty years apart: Tales from Sarbatwalla Chowk is a feature-length documentary on life in Sarbatwalla Chowk, today and how it used to be 50 years back.

The stories of these two times play out simultaneously throughout the film on two parallel tracks – sound and picture.

The sound track narrates, through the stories of Farrukh Dhondy from his book “Poona Company”, an account of life in the Chowk fifty years back.

The picture track documents life in Sarbatwalla Chowk today, following not the text of the stories, but the geographical arrangement of the streets in the Chowk.

The two tracks play out separately, unconnected to each other, sometimes co-inciding, sometimes diverging. By making connections between what they see at one point with what they hear at another point, viewers draw their own picture of the place, how it is now and what it used to be 50 years back.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thursday, July 24, 2008

And we're back after a short break

The two Floating Weeds were busy trekking in the Sahyadris the last couple of weeks to organise screenings, but this Saturday, 26th July, 6.30 pm, we are back with Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights.

And now for the mandatories:

Insurance is the subject matter of solicitation. Mutual funds are subject to market risk. And discussions, drinks and dinner can follow depending on the inclination. You are also welcome to use our space to share your work.

For those not in the know, we are located at B-11, Guru Kripa, off Veera Desai Road, Andheri West, midway between Belle Vue Nursing Home and Reliance Fresh. Let us know on 9920233732 (Kaevan) or 9820481356 (Vinoo) if you will be coming.

P.S. You're also welcome to join us on one of our foolhardy adventures into the Sahyadris where we give up our collective wisdom and well trudged paths for the path less taken.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

And we're on air

A 2 minute edit of our first film, a corporate documentary for IBM worldwide on how they partnered Bharti Airtel on spearheading the Indian mobile revolution, will be aired today, 9th June, as part of the "Innovation @ Work" show on CNBC India at 7.30 pm. In case you miss it, you can catch it again this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, at 6.30 pm.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

This week at Floating Weeds

Since last week's visual treats from Paradjnov left a few dazed and confused, this week we are screening something that's more approachable.

This Saturday, 5th July, at 6.30 pm, we will be watching Michael Haneke's French film from 2000 - Code Inconnu (Code Unknown). Discussions, drinks and dinner can follow depending on the inclination.

You are also welcome to use our space to share your work.

For those not in the know, we are located at B-11, Guru Kripa, off Veera Desai Road, Andheri West, midway between Belle Vue Nursing Home and Reliance Fresh.

Let us know on 9920233732 (Kaevan) or 9820481356 (Vinoo) if you will be coming.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Next change at Floating Weeds

- Full house?
- Not very...
...for an opening.

I found these lines from Ozu's Floating Weeds equally apt for our screening yesterday. We hope to see more of you at our next screening.

This Saturday, 28th June, at 6 pm, we will be watching two films by Sergei Paradjnov - The Legend of Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib. Discussions, drinks and dinner can follow depending on the inclination.

You are also welcome to use our space to share your work.

For those not in the know, we are located at B-11, Guru Kripa, off Veera Desai Road, Andheri West, midway between Belle Vue Nursing Home and Reliance Fresh.

Let us know on 9920233732 (Kaevan) or 9820481356 (Vinoo) if you will be coming.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Floating Weeds at Floating Weeds

When we conceived Floating Weeds, our idea was to grow it into a loose collective of like-minded people, our friends and fellow drifters, pursuing our various interests on a commercial basis without compromising on what we enjoy doing. With that in mind, we have long been thinking of using Vinoo's extensive DVD collection, our 29 inch TV and the living room as an excuse to get everyone together and start talking. Finally, we are putting that thought into action by screening - what else, but - Floating Weeds, the 1959 Japanese film by Yasujiro Ozu from which we borrow our name, this coming Saturday, 21st June, at 7 pm. Discussions, drinks and dinner can follow depending on the inclination.

We plan to make screenings like this one a regular event at Floating Weeds. You are also welcome to use our space to share your work.

For those not in the know, we are located at B-11, Guru Kripa, off Veera Desai Road, Andheri West, midway between Belle Vue Nursing Home and Reliance Fresh.

Let us know on 9920233732 (Kaevan) or 9820481356 (Vinoo) if you will be coming.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Tales from a recce - Pushkar

Tales from a recce – Pushkar Pushkar (born of flower which Hindu mythology has it comes from the Swan with lotus that was sent by the gods so Brahma could perform his Yagna) is one long stretch of open land and is located just 14 kilometres off Ajmer. You would wonder what makes this deserted stretch of land famous. It is essentially the Pushkar mela besides of course the only Brahma temple*. During any time but the mela, Pushkar would look no different from any other village or town in Rajasthan. Acres and acres of barren land, kids on swings, people walking past you, often Camel in tow, women in colourful outfits, folk musicians and of course a huge crowd headed for the Pushkar lake and the Brahma temple. The kids by the tea-shop are a regular fixture I would presume. They have made the tree with the swing their own and are joyfully playing totally oblivious to the world around them. Their smile can wipe out the tiredness from any face. The path to the Pushkar lake is lined by shops on either side. You will find hawkers selling all kinds of stuff, really interesting and curious stuff which will make you wonder how they think up some of these products with tourists in mind. As you walk past the narrow streets it would be difficult to miss all the colour and a passing folk musician's music will announce his arrival. Pushkar is definitely worth a visit, more so during the mela which boasts of the largest camel fair in the world. This is a favourite haunt for the foreign tourists and is rivaled in colour and scale only by the Kumbh mela. With Camel races to set off the event and also sale of livestock, textiles, trinkets and folk music and dance accompanying it would sure be a sight to behold. For those interested the Pushkar mela happens in November and begins on a full-moon day. But then you missed it this year when it happened between 18 and 24 November. You will have to wait another year to witness it. You won't regret being there. I sure hope to be there when it happens in the very near future. Until then I will take pleasure in the fact that I did go there. So what if I only imagined the Mela happen right in front of me. * Brahma was cursed, mythology has it, that he wouldn't be worshipped for reasons that have been passed on through various stories. One story goes thus : Brahma performed a Yagna with Gayatri, a local milkmaid. Incensed, Savitri cursed her husband that he would never be worshipped anywhere except in Pushkar and that too only once a year. Savitri left for Ratnagiri Hill after cursing her husband and immolated herself there at which location you have the Savitri temple. Another story goes : Shiva asked Brahma and Vishnu to find the end of the 'Linga' J. Vishnu came back tired. Brahma said he had indeed found the end of 'Linga' to which Shiva said there is no end or beginning to the Linga. And for uttering this lie he was cursed. After Brahma apologized he was allowed worship at one place, Pushkar. Any other myth any of you have access to please share.

Friday, May 9, 2008

'A Floating Weeds production'

Last night, as I watched this title card fade in and out of the IBM minimentary, the momentousness of it completely passed me by. An hour later, travelling back home in a local train, purged of the intensity that goes into making each film, it finally sunk in. Floating Weeds had just made its first film.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Forgotten People: The Parsis of rural Gujarat

Last month, I accompanied the Young Rathestars to rural Gujarat. The Young Rathestars are a Zoroastrian charity in Mumbai that provide financial assistance to poor Parsis in Bombay and other places in India. The purpose of their trip was to distribute foodgrains, other essentials and financial aid to over 70 rural Zoroastrian families in the villages around Ankleshwar.

Unlike the Young Rathestars, I am not a social worker. I am a documentary filmmaker and for some time now, I have been documenting the realities of the existence of our community that seem all too obvious to me but somehow are not on the radar of those around me. One such issue I want to document is that of the people we love to dismiss as Dubras, the illegitimate children of Parsi fathers with their tribal mistresses. The history of the Dubras lies in the villages of rural Gujarat, and my purpose in accompanying the Young Rathestars was to take a first-hand look at the condition of the Parsis in these villages.

I had an idea what to expect. I had already made a documentary on the poor among the community in urban Pune. I had also seen an amateur video of the poverty in rural Gujarat, shot more than 10 years back. I had seen photographs of these people on the Young Rathestars website. I had been part of a Government-sponsored workshop that had discussed the issue of poverty among the Parsis in both urban and rural India. And yet, as it so happens, whenever I go on research for my films, despite knowing so much, I ultimately find out that what I know is oh so little. The situation turns out to be far worse than what I have heard or read about.

My perception of a rural Parsi village, and I’m sure it is of many others too, was of places I had visited before. Places like Davier and Tarapore and Gholvad and Udwada. Places with agyaries and dharamsalas, sanatoriums and old brick houses on whose porches old Parsis sit, lonely and forlorn. I expected that the names of the villages I was going to visit would be found in our surnames.

Instead we set out to places I have never come across in any surname. Lavet, Vankal, Boria, Zankhvav, Ambavadi, Ratoti, Devgadh, Jhakharda… Some of them weren’t even villages but tribal hamlets. Off the main highways, down narrow village roads, tucked away somewhere deep into the interiors, these places used to be parts of the jungle not too long ago. If I was on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to find these places. The large road map of Gujarat that I had with me didn’t even list them. In such places, I was surprised to find Parsi families, sometimes one, sometimes a few, staying there for generations, eking out a living.

As we went from place to place, it wasn’t the poverty of the families we visited that hit me – their tattered clothes, their houses of straw and wood and mud, their wasted-away lives – but the fact that we as a community had forgotten them. In our collective memories, these people do not exist. In our ideas of what Parsi identity should be, these people do not figure.

And strangely enough, it wouldn’t have been too long ago that our families too would have been in similar circumstances. The Parsi baugs and colonies of Bombay are less than a hundred years old. They were established to resettle Parsi villagers escaping the Gujarat famine. In less than a hundred years, we have forgotten who we used to be.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Tales from a recce - Sam Sand Dunes

Tales from a recce – Sam sand dunes

We drive down to Jaisalmer and discover enroute that communal clashes have erupted thanks to 23 cows being slaughtered. While this incited Hindu Muslim rioting the whole incident was supposedly sparked off by ‘the saffron brigade’, as ratified by the a majority of the people we met, that came in from outside to spew fire into a village that had different communities co-existing without fear. We had no choice but to stay put at our hotel. And then as Alambhai - the legend, our production person, suggested we took a chance and headed towards Sam before sundown. What a memorable trip it was to be.

We reach Sam and quickly get to our job. A camel-ride through the sand-dunes with gypsies playing music in the background. We met with a couple of army-men stationed there. Another thing we couldn’t have missed were the interesting slogans put up all around. We sure hoped to go back to Jaisalmer and Sam to shoot. It was not to be. The client and budgets willed otherwise. It is on my agenda for another trip. It sure was a very short trip which was followed by a brief stopover for some traditional Rajasthani music. Although it seemed like a very short package tour it sure was memorable trip thanks to Rahimbhai and his camels, interestingly named Shah Rukh Khan, Hritik Roshan, Abhishek and Michael Jackson. No! There was no Michelle Pfeiffer. I will leave it at that J. And as the sun went down every random click even from this amateur cameraman would be a picture postcard. How many people can say after a recce trip ‘What a riot?’.

Tales from a recce - Blue city

Tales from a recce – Blue city

A whole city tucked away a few centuries into the past. Lanes just narrow enough for people to crisscross paths and at best would allow a horse-drawn carriage, the transport of that period presumably, to pass through. You stepped out of one house and stepped into another. Everyone knew everyone else. And all this over-looking the fabulous and magnificent Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur. Thousands of houses huddled together, and around, the fort like it would have been when the Rajput emperor, Ajit, ruled over the place, after routing the Mughals. The city though is named after Rao Jodha and dates back to 1459.

The people of this city, very aptly termed Jodhpur Old City, seem to be living in a different era altogether. And almost like an unwritten code they all have been painting the town, city rather, a different hue. Blue! What started off as a supposedly ‘Brahminical’ way (I will need to check authenticity of this. Anyone who knows for sure please fill me in) of distinguishing their homes from the rest now cuts across class and creed. The old city is painted such a beautiful hue of blue you just can’t help being enticed by it. Jodhpur, also called Sun city, believes blue helps keep off the harsh rays of the Sun. I wonder if they know something the others don’t. Maybe the VIB reflects off more of the harsh rays than the GYOR. All I can say is it soothes you no end and makes you want to spend days together at the place. It is little wonder then that we went back to the very same old city for our shoot. Well… who ever said work and pleasure don’t go together just doesn’t know what work to take up J. I, for one, sure will go back there to spend a peaceful week. Make that a fortnight.

I almost forgot to mention the places to stay are all equally fabulous. My choice is Ranbanka, which is bang opposite Ummed Bhavan Palace. Also visit ‘Anokhi’ for traditional clothing and ‘On the rocks’ for a good night-out. And don’t forget to visit ‘Amalate place’* for Omlettes. For those of you who haven’t been there ask for Ghanta ghar. Bubloo or one of the drivers will take you there willingly in one of their Rickshaws which is decked like a bride. And we sure were lucky we were with Alambhai aka Alampanah, our production person who made sure Jodhpur felt like home. And he has more than one filmi story to tell. But then that’s a privilege reserved for a very select few.

Anyone wants a guide I sure would like to offer my services. And all it will cost you is a few Omelettes besides of course some chilled liquids to go with it. Any takers? Vinoo guide packed and ready to leave.

* ‘Amalate place’ is listed in the Lonely Planet and serves more than just Omelettes. We couldn’t help asking the gentleman who runs this place what he has for dinner. Your guess would be as good as mine but then he gave up eating eggs precisely 19 years ago. As for his signboard it was a contribution from a Korean tourist. I sure want to meet that person’s English teacher over an Amalate.

And another two from Bangalore

On our way to the Sparsh Hospital on the Bangalore-Hosur highway, we come across signboards put up by the hospital. The boards advertise an emergency number to be called in case of an accident: 9900100088.

At the hospital, we inquire where calls to this number go to. The head of ambulance services? An emergency cell? We learn it goes directly to the man who matters: Nagaraj, the ambulance driver. It’s a mobile phone number, and the phone is at all times with Nagaraj.

Nagaraj’s ambulance is small. It’s a modified Maruti van, equipped with a first-aid kit and has space for a ventilator and oxygen if necessary. Nagaraj and a ward-boy man the ambulance.

Nagaraj is a young man, probably 30 or so. He is modest about the work he does. But it is a responsibility which he does not take lightly.

Nagaraj gets at least 20 emergency calls a month. When he gets one, he doesn’t ask too many questions. Just the location of the accident, and he is away.

Other hospitals ask about the extent of severity, refusing severe cases that would involve filing police reports. Or ask about the patient’s social status, preferring to leave the less privileged to government hospitals. But that is not hospital policy at Sparsh.

Nagaraj doesn’t use his emergency number for personal calls. For that, he carries his own mobile phones. He carries 3 in all. His own, the emergency Airtel line for Bangalore users, and another emergency BSNL line for Hosur users. Once the accident victim has been shifted to the ambulance, Nagaraj calls the head of ambulance services at Sparsh to inform him on the extent of injury. Shiva Kumar, the head, then makes the necessary arrangements at the hospital.

While we were at Sparsh, Nagaraj did not receive an emergency call on his mobile. But he told us it rings at least once in two days.


A mobile phone did make the difference between life and death for Ramakrishnappa.

We met Ramakrishnappa while he was recovering after a road accident at Sparsh hospital.

Ramakrishnappa is 48. He runs a small shop, selling bidis, cigarettes and other small items, outside the KSRTC bus depot in Anekal at the outskirts of Bangalore.

Twenty days back, Ramakrishnappa was traveling back home from his village with a friend on a two-wheeler. They had an accident and a lorry ran over Ramakrishnappa’s legs. His friend escaped unhurt, but fainted on seeing the state of Ramakrishnappa’s legs.

The road was deserted. There was no one to help Ramakrishnappa. Despite the pain, he struggled with his mobilephone, and managed to call up a couple of friends. One arrived there in ten minutes and took him to a nearby doctor. The doctor suggested they move him to a bigger hospital, and he was rushed to Sparsh.

Ramakrishnappa had to undergo three operations, and is now recovering. His wife keeps him company in the hospital, while his son minds the shop. His recovery is slow, and a lot depends on how he responds to the treatment. But the doctors hope he will be able to regain full use of his legs, and he has his mobile phone to thank for that.

A few more from Kerala

We wake up at 2 am to go fishing with Salas and crew. Salas’s fishing village is approximately an hour’s drive south of Cochin. It is a picturesque village. Brightly-coloured fishing boats are docked on the beach on wooden planks. Coconut palms sway in the background. At 4 am though, it is all a uniform shade of grey.

Salas and his crew are early-morning fishermen. There are fishing boats setting out at all hours of the day. Each have their own theories on the best times for catching fish.

Salas’ boat is a small fibre-glass boat with an outboard motor. All of us take our positions around the boat and slide the boat on the planks towards the sea. As the boat moves off one plank, somebody runs ahead with it to put it in front of the boat.

When the boat reaches the sea, we clamber into it. The other villagers give it one final heave, the motor spurts to life and we are off. The shore recedes away into the distance.

An hour into the sea, Salas picks a spot to fish. He stops the boat, and figures out the movement of the shoals, the direction of the tide, the depth of the waters and other things. He is not satisfied and we move off again to another spot.

Salas likes this spot. The five-member crew begin casting their net into the sea. It is 5 km long. The net has been meticulously folded to make casting it simple and quick. One of the crew picks up the weights that the net is tied to and drops them one after another into the sea. The boat keeps moving to cover as large an area as possible. Plastic jerry-cans tied to ropes are also dropped into the sea. They serve as buoys, marking the limits of the net.

The crew waits for 10-15 minutes before hauling the net back in. Three men pull up the net, the other two wait behind to extricate the fish out of the net. The fish gets dumped at the bottom of the boat. The catch looks sparse.

The crew chant to a beat to coordinate their efforts in pulling the net up. They have now struck a shoal and the net is heavy. Every foot they pull up is rich with fish, and the two men behind now stop extricating the fish from the net, and help in pulling it up.

An hour and a half later, the net is drawn up completely. Salas heads the boat to the landing centre. He uses his mobile phone to call someone on the shore, to tell our driver to head to the landing centre to pick us up.

In our conversations with fishermen and representatives of fishing federations, we have come to know that mobile phone signals extend to 12 km into the sea. Fishermen, however, fish up to 100 km into the sea, and therefore, the mobile phone offers only limited connectivity to them as far as they are concerned. What they’d like most of all are mobile telephony towers in the middle of the sea. The government and the networks should do something about this jointly, they feel.

Fishermen primarily use mobile phones in the sea for three things. It is a convenient emergency tool, when within range. Storm warnings are communicated to them from the shore, and in case of engine failure, they can call the shore for help. There was a storm warning a month earlier, and many fishermen escaped it as they were warned about it in time through the mobile phone. Others who were out of range had had to be airlifted, and three fishing boats went missing.

They also use it to communicate with other fishing boats to determine where the best catches are. It is especially convenient when they set off together in two boats or more.

A third use is to find out the price on shore once the catch is brought up. This helps them to decide which landing centre to head to, as the price at each landing centre varies depending on the amount of catch brought in that day. However, this advantage has been neutralized now, since the buyers of fish at the shore also have mobile phones and they use them to fix the prices between each other. Many fishermen feel that the price of the catch has actually dropped with the advent of the mobile phone.

Today, however, Salas has no need to use his mobile phone. The sea has been calm, and the engine, though it has gone off a few times, has restarted every time. The catch has been good too, and this being the off-season, there’s not so much fish being brought in daily and he knows he’ll get a good price at his regular landing centre, so he doesn’t need to call the shore to find out the price. During season though, he does that, to determine which landing centre to head to.

We head to the landing centre. The fishermen make space in the centre of the boat, and begin to remove the fish from the net, sorting them out into different sizes in the different compartments of the boat.


The landing centre is a large beach. A hundred odd boats are in the sea and on the shore, and people mill around noisily. Catches get brought in in baskets from the boats and the tharakans conduct auctions for each lot.

Francis is a tharakan at the Pallithode landing centre. He uses his mobile to contact boats in the sea to tip them off on prices at the landing centre. This helps the fishermen decide where to take their catch. It’s in the tharakan’s interest too.

Most boats are jointly owned by an investor and/or a tharakan and the fisherman. This makes it mandatory for the fishermen to go through the tharakan once they have their catch. The owners keep 50% of the profit. The tharakan gets a share of this profit, as well as a cut for offering his services as an auctioneer. It is therefore in the tharakan’s interest as well that the fishermen get the best price.


Behind the landing centre, vendors have set up tea-stalls and hotels on the sands for the fishermen and the buyers. They are temporary, constructed out of bamboos and plastic sheets. The stoves are wood fires, and the seating is on wooden benches and tables.

Sheebu owns one such hotel. He bought a mobile phone for general use, but has found a lot of use for it in his work. Fishermen call him up from the boats to find out the price of fish at the landing centre. Fishermen are always trooping in and out of his hotel, and they keep him informed about the price of fish. He doesn’t charge for this service, but he knows that if the fishermen land here, it will only be good for his business.

The mobile phone also helps him in another way. His brother has a small transport vehicle to transport fish from the shore. If the vehicle is away on errand, and a customer needs it, he calls up his brother on the mobile. He can be there in 10-15 minutes, meanwhile the customer helps his business with some tea and snacks, and his brother does not lose out on any business.

The mobile phone also helps him with the mundane matter of ordering supplies for his hotel when he runs out of them.


Ashraff Mattancherry sells lottery tickets to fishermen at the landing centre. He used to be a fisherman himself once, but now makes a living selling lottery tickets. He carries a mobile phone, but it’s not for business reasons. He uses it to keep in touch with family members in Dubai.

Ashraff makes anything from 90 paise to Rs.2/- on the sale of one ticket. He manages to make about Rs.200/- per day. Though his work needs him to be mobile, Ashraff doesn’t have much use for a mobile phone in his work. Lottery tickets are impulse purchases and customers don’t go around looking for a seller. At best, he uses it to get in touch with the agent to return unsold stock.

The lottery draw is usually at 2.30, and Ashraff has to inform the agent about unsold tickets before 1.30, to have them taken back or annulled. If he fails to intimate the agent in time, he has to pay for the unsold tickets. The mobile phone helps him sell tickets until the deadline without worrying about having to return the unsold tickets well in time.

Recce stories from Rajasthan

The desert begins abruptly at Sam. Vegetation suddenly gives way to sand dunes. But even before we got there, we knew it was just around the corner. The last few hundred metres to Sam are lined with colourfully bedecked camels, waiting for tourists to emerge out of their camps for a trip into the desert.

At Sam, we went around looking for camel-drivers with mobile phones. We found four young men. They weren’t dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire, the colour we were looking for, but they would have to do. There had been riots in Jaisalmer that day, and there weren’t too many camels or tourists around.

My driver was Salim Khan. The camel was not his own, it belonged to his seth. Did the mobile also belong to his seth? No, the mobile was his, but the seth paid for a 100 buck recharge each month. Anything above that, he had to pay himself.

About 80% of the camel-drivers had mobile phones, he told me. It was good for business. A mobile does the work of one man, he said, mobile ek aadmi ka kaam kar leta hai. The hoteliers would call the seth and let him know how many camels they required and at what time. The seth would in turn get in touch with them on their mobiles.

It was good for emergencies too. Foreign tourists preferred to spend some time in the desert, and would be dropped off at a spot, to be picked up later at a notified time. Occasionally, they would wander off by themselves, and lose their way in the desert. A mobile came in very handy at those times.

We passed by a group of colourfully dressed banjara women making their way through the sand. Who are these women, I asked. They sing and dance for the tourists, he told me. Do they carry mobiles too? No, they didn’t.

The music of the banjaras followed us through the air as we rode into the desert. When it refused to carry any more, Salim played some songs on his mobile.

Which service do you use, I asked him. Hutch. Why not Airtel? Airtel was good too, but everyone he knew was on Hutch. And Hutch-to-Hutch was cheaper.

The others had been questioning their respective camel-drivers too. Vinoo’s told him that thanks to the mobile, they didn’t feel the hospital was distant any more. Their village was ten kilometres inside the desert by road, and five kilometres by camel-back, Salim said.

We stopped for a while on the sands. Rakesh’s camel-driver took out his mobile and made a call. Do you know what he just did, Rakesh asked me. He saw a cow enter his field and called up someone to ask him to chase it away. In the distance, we saw another camel-driver riding up to the cow in question. Mobile technology at work.


I wanted to scout some traditional Rajasthani villages with mud houses for possible mobile stories. Alambhai suggested Ossian. So on our way back from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, we took a detour to take a look at Ossian.

We passed by the mud houses, but they didn’t make for very interesting settings. Most of them had solid houses attached to them. Alambhai told me that the villagers had money these days and were investing in proper houses.

We also passed a group of wandering metalworkers by the roadside. Their belongings and children spilled out on the street, as the men worked the metal and the women took care of the rest. We pulled over to ask if they had mobiles, but they didn’t.

We reached a market-place of sorts outside the Ossian bus-stand and stopped to take a look. It was a dusty road, tiny shops lining it on both sides selling all sorts of things. All sorts of people and things were thronging the street. Men in bright yellow turbans and jewellery around their ears, a Muslim oiler with a white cap and a long-flowing white beard, potters, tractors, cows, womenfolk in colourful sarees, jeeps…

Quite a few of them had mobile phones, but no interesting stories on how they used them. A farmer in a bright yellow turban showed us the mobile phone he had in his pocket, but he didn’t have much to say about how he used it other than the fact that he did. The Muslim oiler had a long conversation with Vinoo on how his machine worked but didn’t have that much to say about his mobile phone. Ravi came up to me and said he was not having much luck either. People had mobile phones in the village but seemed to be putting them to the most mundane of uses.

I had a feeling that we would find a story here, it was just a matter of finding the right person, preferably one in traditional Rajasthani attire. And then, out of the blue, it hit me. The story was here, but not in one person. It was in the village.

I looked around, and indeed, it was. Three mobile telephony towers loomed on one side, another one was on the other. Shop fronts were advertising mobile phone services the whole two hundred metre stretch of road. Airtel. Vodafone. Reliance. Almost everyone seemed to have a mobile phone here.

A few shops had proudly displayed their mobile phone numbers on their facades. One of them had an office number and two mobile numbers. I went up to the shopkeeper to ask which of the phones did customers usually call. The land phone is dead, he told me. Everyone used mobiles here. Almost everyone had one, some even had two. A man standing next to me at the shop comfirmed the fact. In his hand, he carried two mobile phones.

Mobile phones came to the village in 2000 with BSNL. Now everyone was here, he said, giving me the chronological order in which they all arrived. Airtel, Hutch, Reliance, Tata. But BSNL was still the best, he said. The two mobile phone numbers listed on the façade, his and his brother’s, were not co-incidentally BSNL.

One look at the colourful autorickshaws of Jodhpur convinced me that we had our autorickshaw story here. Almost every auto we saw had been gaily decorated inside and outside. And from our experience with autodrivers in Bombay and Bangalore, there were bound to be many with mobile phones.

Babulal’s taxi (as autorickshaws are called in Jodhpur) had shiny red interiors with white seats having floral patterns on them and steelwork on the outside. We asked him if he had a mobile. He had, and we asked him to take us around the old city, the Blue City where all the Brahmin houses are painted blue.

The Blue City ran around the base of the Meherangarh Fort that sits atop Jodhpur. Our autorickshaw made its way up the tiny alleys that run through the old city. The roads started getting narrower and narrower. At one point, we had to wait by the side to allow a camel cart to pass us by from the opposite side.

Babulal’s taxi lurched and veered to allow bikes and other taxis to cross us from the other side. Tiny shops and houses lined the alleys on both sides. We passed ladies in colourful sarees, blue walls, turbaned men, mithai shops, Marwari jewelers, saree shops, paan shops, cows and donkeys, temples, ornate doors, aluminium shutters, men playing cards, priests, advertisements on walls, signboards, old havelis, little shops in holes in the wall… The colours and textures of India were all around us in their richest.

Babulal had bought a mobile two years back. It helped him in his trade. He had a few businessmen and shopkeepers who called him regularly to transport goods. He said having a mobile made more sense than waiting for hours at the taxi-stand for a customer. Now they only had to call him and he could be there in ten minutes. They paid well for the service, so it was more than worth it.

Babulal also found the phone useful for his other regular clientele – schoolchildren. Anxious mothers could now call him and arrange for their kids to be dropped off elsewhere if no one was at home. There were only advantages to having a mobile phone, he felt.

Tales from a recce - Narlai village

Tales from a recce – Narlai village

About 80 kilometres from Jodhpur is a small village called Narlai. Small hutments line either sides of the road that leads to the place. People sitting around totally oblivious to a couple of guys who have descended down armed with a camera. While the elderly men-folk were busy in their discussions and buried into them newspapers another man was being given a haircut and we were seeking a story. It is only the kids that seem enticed by the camera. They were all keen to get photographed and competed with each other to snuggle into my viewfinder.

Old men huddle around a Tea-shop or a Banyan tree that seems to be part of every single village we went to. One elderly gentleman willingly took off his ‘Pagdi’ (read turban) to show us how the thing is tied around his head. A few photographs and a black tea before we head back to base driving through the same village. En-route we bump into a goat-herd and a girl who would be his assistant. Each one of their faces tells a story. So much character, so many stories hidden behind those lines. We also talk to a few women working in a field nearby. Another thing we gathered from our Rajasthan trip was that the colour of the turban is caste-specific. So much so people can identify an individual’s caste from the colour of the turban they are wearing. Wonder who invented these distinctions. (One old Malayalam song comes to mind. A bad translation of it for your benefit : Man made religion, religion made god. Man, religion and the gods together divided land, divided minds. Sigh!) It was some relief to hear one villager mention that the distinction no longer exists and all colours are now used inter-changeably. Some consolation that I must say.

And interestingly we did see quite a few peacocks and an odd deer on either sides of the road we traveled on. It is mostly thanks to the Bishnoi* community that nature has been conserved here. Quite ironically education and development seems to ruin in us the conservatory nature. It is a pleasure driving through this village with intermittent stops to meet with some of the people here. The place and the people have a texture that is entirely different. You won’t find this place on too many travel maps but let me recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by people and faces, and villages that are real.

* In the year 1730, Amruta Devi Beniwal was tending to her work in Khejroli village (Khejri from the spiky trees), near Jodhpur. Maharaja Abhaya Singh’s men landed up to cut the Khejri trees for fuel. Amruta Devi, a Bishnoi, Bish (twenty) nau (nine) referred to the 29 principles advocated by Guru Jambeshwar, an early naturalist born in 1451. He laid down one very fundamental rule : don’t kill animals or trees. Amruta Devi refused to let the Maharaja’s men fell the trees with the words “Sar santey rukh rahe to bhi sasto jaan” which roughly translates to “Even if one has to sacrifice one’s head to save a tree, it’s worth it.” The Maharaja’s men cut off her head when she hugged a tree to protect it. Her three daughters and then over the next few hours 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives to protect the Khejri tree. Two centuries later the Chipko movement was inspired by this one incident. Most people who read India’s leading newspaper frontpage headlines will relate to the grief Salman Khan is going through for taking on wildlife here. I love these guys. I hope to get them to Namma Bengalooru and Aamchi Mumbai so they can drive some sense into indiscriminate urbanization.