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... to the Little Rann of Kutch
Photographs and Text: Dilip D'Souza
It must say something about the roads in this country that in our five day trip through Gujarat, the highest speeds we achieved were off the road. Chasing after a nilgai in the Little Rann of Kutch, going pell-mell over the baked-solid mud, hoping hard not to fall out of our large open jeep, I glanced at the speedometer. It wasn't working. Just as well, I figured. I wasn't sure I could survive a confirmation of the speed I think we were nudging. It certainly felt like we had left the legal speed limit on US highways far behind; we certainly were zooming along at a rate I have never reached on Indian highways -- and we were doing it on mud!
Fast yes, but we could not catch the nilgai. He was a fair distance away when we spotted him, and he took off as soon as we showed an interest in him. Going at full tilt, he broke this way and that unpredictably: a manoeuvre that gave me new respect for his knees. See, I'm pretty weak-kneed myself. Being so, I know the kind of strength he needed in those joints to weave the jolting, intricate path he did to shake us off.
On the other hand, we were not sure his heart would hold out. So we gave up the chase after a few minutes. He vanished into a small clump of bushes. I found myself catching my own breath as we came to a halt near ... well, near nothing, really.
The Little Rann (literally, desert) is flat, featureless and brown. There are those clumps of bushes, OK. But other than that, it is one vast expanse of dry, cracking mud. Several times, I jumped off the jeep and looked around for some object, any object, that I could put in the foreground of a photograph of the scene. Something that would emphasize the enormous sense of open space you get there. Each time, I found none. I didn't get my dramatic photograph, but maybe that told the story in itself. You see, this is a place for claustrophobes. This is a place for moles from the big city, used to streets so congested it's hard to walk on them and they still have cars and trucks barreling through. This is a place for people who think sweaty armpits and frayed tempers on the 8:56 fast are all that constitute life.
This is a place, let there be no doubt, for those who think places this empty of people cannot exist in India. I was one.
Let there be no doubt, too, about something else. There is little about the Rann that is beautiful, picture-postcard scenic. Thousands of square miles of baked mud can not, does not, aspire to routine beauty. But you can let your imagination fill the gaps: between the clear air, the dazzling night sky, the sheer space, the silence that actually chirps and buzzes and squeaks at you constantly.
Your imagination, and perhaps a dose of old-fashioned wild ass charisma.
Yes, go to the Little Rann of Kutch to see an animal you will see nowhere else. The rare wild ass, or ghudkur, is unique to this area. In fact, the whole Little Rann is the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, the largest wildlife sanctuary in India.
Before we left for the Rann, not one of our friends failed to ask the question. "Hmm," they'd hum. "If you want to see wild asses so badly, why not just turn on your TV and watch the politicians? Heh heh!"
Good question, of course. Only, there was a small snag. We could not turn on our TV because we do not possess a TV. Even in these days of cut rate prices, it is cheaper to go to the Rann of Kutch to see wild asses than to buy a TV. So we went, leaving our questioners to turn on or off to their chuckling heart's content. Perhaps all of us saw wild asses. Perhaps some of us are wild asses.
That apart. At first hello in the Rann, you think: just how did a zebra, a horse and a donkey manage the joint reproductive effort that was needed to produce this beast? It's reminiscent of that film Rashomon that I never cared for: everyone who sees the ghudkur comes away with a different animal in mind. Its face is unmistakably ass-like, but longer and snoutier, somewhat horse-like. It is also a rather larger animal than the donkeys that stand around in domesticated stupor. The muscular, rounded haunches display what surely must be zebra lineage. So does the graceful, speedy run that keeps you at a definite distance.
As our jeep neared a group of six or seven asses, they deputed one to keep an eye on us while the others went about their asinine business. Two must have got into an argument, because they were suddenly kicking at each other with those muscular hind legs. I felt grateful I was not on the business end of the kicks. My knees would have crumbled entirely, along with most of the rest of my bones.
Meanwhile, the sentinel watched us like one of those paintings that seem to follow you uncannily wherever you roam. Without appearing to move, he was looking steadily straight at us, ready to flash the alarm if we misbehaved. His ears were upright and alert, and through my binoculars, I caught the small tuft of hair that topped them. The rest of him was an alternating white and light brown, a colour scheme that explains why they are so hard to pick out against the landscape of the Rann. And behind his knees, he had the most intriguing, delectable, dark patches.
Later, Ayub, our driver, stopped the jeep near a lone member of the species. I walked towards her, determined to get a photograph if not actually get acquainted. She watched intently, ears quivering to hear any suspicious sounds I might make. After all, there's no telling what noises you'll hear from these city types, is there? I tramped closer and closer, nearly to the point where her handsome frame would fill my viewfinder... poof, she was gone, prancing elegantly away. In mere seconds, there was a good extra 200 metres between us. I tramped on again. She waited, and then shot off again.
Whether I walked, ran, trotted, took it one slow step at a time -- whatever I did, it was futile. This fetching lady of the Rann did not so much as neigh or bray, but half an hour of following her shapely rump told me quite emphatically: thus far, no further. Inexplicably, I began to feel forlornly jilted.
I climbed sadly back onto the jeep and we set off across the mud flats again. Sharp-eyed Ayub saw a chinkara in the distance and we accelerated to get closer. The dainty gazelle broke into a series of high, bounding leaps that easily got my spirits up again. After a while, I was able to tell myself meaningfully: "Don't be an ass, it was just an ass!"
The highest speed we managed on a road in those five Gujarat days was on the bus from Mahesana to Ahmedabad. That highway is smooth, flat and nearly dead straight. As the driver leaned on his horn to get obstacles -- cars, carts, cycles, sundry things like that -- out of the way, the bus built up to a pretty fair clip. We sped past the utterly bizarre Waterworld resort: all twisted pipes and slides, like an alien starship come to rest amid the fields of sugarcane. Fancy, shiny cars were lined up outside. It seemed unlikely they had come for the sugarcane.
We rollicked on. A succession of garish restaurants loomed up and faded rapidly away behind. One was called "Why Wait". I said to myself: "True enough."
It took me some seconds to realize that the sign really read "Way Wait". Boy, what a ridiculous name! They should have stuck to "Why Wait".
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