The Pushkar Fair is around the corner and Ashis Dutta, who was there last year, tells you just why you should be gearing up to go
“Why do you stretch open the mouth of the camel and peer inside?” I ask Sheikh Mustafa. He laughs loudly, throwing his head back.
At four in the afternoon, the November sun is just about bearable but commerce is on in full swing at the edge of the Thar Desert in Pushkar, the small town in Rajasthan that hosts the world’s largest animal fair every year, the Pushkar Animal Fair.
I am sipping tea at a make-shift tea stall. Before me, the golden yellow desert stretches west as far as where the sand fuses with the grey of the sky.
Thousands of camels fill up the desert. Some are slouched, others stand, many huddle together, and all look supercilious. Small dusty-white tents punctuate the vista. Once in a while a sharp ‘neigh’ drifts in from where the horses are stabled in the open. It all looks a bit surreal.
Sheikh Mustafa’s village is a day-and-a-half’s camel ride away and he has pitched tent in the desert sands to haggle and enjoy the fair. He has just bought three camels. He harnesses them to his tent and walks into the tea stall to celebrate his hard-driven bargain, but he hadn’t bargained for my company. I badger him with questions. How much does a camel cost? How do you get to the right price? How much did you pay for that one? Why did you look into the camel’s mouth? Finally, to shake me off, he confides that the gums of a camel speak a lot about its health. Ah, the secret of why everybody peers into the outstretched mouths of the beasts. Sheikh Mustafa finishes his tea and slips away.
I decide to take a ride on one of the camel-drawn carts that are clearly a big hit with the tourists. I board one with a motley group of eleven gathered from five countries across four continents. We squat on a thick mattress thrown over the wooden planks of the cart. With a jerk and a chorused scream of owww, we lurch off.
The cart charts its own track on the sand, occasionally leaning to one side or the other. We pass a row of tents selling camel accessories. Bright blue cushioned saddles, red and yellow bridles, jingling anklets, braids with nylon flowers and pompoms at the end. Cameras start to click from our cart. Some tourists unwisely try to stand up for a better angle but lose balance and fall back in a heap.
The hour-long ride ends in exhilaration. As we alight from the cart, a woman steps towards us. She is dressed in a bright red blouse, long crimson ghagra with sparkling mirror work, and a translucent veil clipped to her hair in an inverted V as if hooding a tiara and flowing down both sides of her face. She has thick white bangles on her upper arms and a riot of ceramic bangles covers her forearms. An oversized silver nose ring dominates her face. She approaches Beatrice, a tourist from Edinburgh, with a winning smile and an offer to apply mehndi. “Only five hundred rupees, madam.” “Two hundred,” bargains Beatrice, and I know she is hooked.
The sun reclines on a spread of scarlet across the western sky. The desert reflects the colour and adds a glow of its own. The curtains come down on a hectic day of business but barely two hundred feet away, a new life is beginning.
I squeeze between two hefty men about half way up the amphitheatre. Lights come on and flood the stage. Two drums begin to beat – dra ra ra ra dram dram. A lady announces the evening’s first item, Snake Dance of Rajasthan, by a local folk group.
Cameras start flashing. Beatrice arrives by the third item, her face flushed. She shouts above the music, “Been to the circus and to the magic show… vanishing woman… there,” she points to the large tents beside the Ferris wheel.
“It also has that yummy, spicy, crisp thing… forget what it’s called,” she says with an apologetic grin. I reckon it’s chaat she is referring to. The other side of the fairground is glowing with the lights of food stalls selling chaats, chilli-stuffed vadas, bhajis, sweets and ice-creams.
Shops line both sides of the street that leads from the town to the famous Pushkar Lake. Rajasthani village women in dazzling saris, their face covered by extended ghunghats (veil), crowd the shops selling bangles and metal jewellery. Rubbing shoulders with them are women from all the continents of the world. I marvel at the Rajasthani men, resplendent in red and orange tie-dye turbans and proud moustaches.
It is past 11 when I finally slip inside my air-conditioned tent. Camels drift in and out of my vision. The golden sand still beckons. Was the day a Dali painting?
A smatter of Nordic dialect wafts in. The Swedish group is grabbing a last drink before the bar closes. But I need to sleep. Tomorrow promises to be the day I might surprise myself. And buy a camel.