Middle East Travel: Currying Flavour

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A white stallion tugs at its reins, clearly agitated by the throng of potential buyers and curious onlookers. Occasionally, an ornery camel adorned with a bright orange garland of marigolds saunters past, kicking up puffs of dust with massive toes.

A man pushes through the fray and introduces himself as Mandar Singh, the owner of the horse. Apparently, he’s planning to fetch 25,000 rupees (roughly $5,000) for the virile Marwari stud. Men, some obviously making mental calculations, stare at the horse in silence. The animal is about as unattainable to them as a Ferrari is to most of us in the west. The Marwari is the noble equine descendant of the horse that once rode proudly at the head of the maharaja’s fighting forces, back when India’s state of Rajasthan was a shifting assemblage of desert fiefdoms.

A regal character with a saffron turban, white salwar kameez (a long tunic-type shirt over loose drawstring pants) and magnificent gravity-defying moustache has also been examining the horse. Suddenly, however, he emits a cascade of tobacco juice from his chops, turns and walks away dismissively. Some esoteric language of commerce is spoken, incomprehensible to me, and as quickly as the crowd had appeared it dissolves into the greater chaos of the Nagaur cattle fair, an hour’s drive north of the city of Jodphur. Around me there is a veritable sea of cows, camels and horses for barter, trade or exhibit in a dizzying display of capitalism and showmanship. These are constant features of the Nagaur, Pushkar and many other colourful festivals in this large desert state.

Leaving the horse trader, I wander through the dusty fairgrounds, my senses besieged by contrast. The landscape of Rajasthan is invariably made up of dull shades of beige and tan, yet the Rajasthani people are flamboyant in costume, character and colour. The crowd in front of me parts to make way for a camel cart driven by a barefoot teenager. It’s a vision that could be lifted from a medieval Indian text, if it weren’t for the occasional concession to modernity: rubber tires, a transistor radio or an acrid kerosene stove brewing hot chai.

The sun begins to sit low, refracting in a blaze of orange through the dust as smoke hovers above the fairgrounds. The air is pungent with wood smoke, animal dung and spices. I weave among countless encampments, kin and companions who might have travelled for days to get here. Spectacular moustaches are the order of the day, waxed to improbable perfection and framing prominent square jaws. Turbans come in brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow and green. A family of Kalbeliya, the famed musicians of the nomadic Roma people, sit on the ground among meagre possessions: a blanket, a copper pot and a small wooden crate. Though the Kalbeliya once entertained in the maharaja’s court, today they are too often reduced to aggressively hawking their song and dance. I am momentarily transfixed by the gaze of an astonishingly beautiful Kalbeliya woman wearing a maroon dress festooned with flashing dime-sized mirrors woven into the fabric. This momentary exchange is taken as an invitation and a troupe of musicians quickly materializes, striking a haunting tune.

I keep walking. The sun is now blood red. A hand waves me over toward a nefarious collection of individuals.

“You want?” a young man says slyly as he hands me a bidi, a strong Indian cigarette. Reluctantly, I sit down. Since we are unable to converse verbally, a preposterous dialogue of hand gestures and dumb smiles ensues. A camel is for sale but I’m not in the market. The men resolve to talk with each other, looking at me and nodding heads conspiratorially.

After 10 awkward minutes, I clasp my hands and proffer a namaste before moving on. I look around for a familiar landmark but see nothing but camels. That is, until I spot the distinct umbrella branches of a banyan tree. Aiming toward this landmark, I’m surprised to see the same white Marwari being led by its proud new owner. After a vocal round of bartering, offers and counter offers, a deal was struck, a tidy profit made. Despite India’s frantic pace of development and its emergence as a world economic powerhouse, at places like the Nagaur cattle fair commerce is carried out in the same unvarnished, gritty way it has been for millennia on the great sub-continent.