Am I going blind? Everything just looks like different shades of white. The ground, the sky, the horizon all of it blurs into a surreal extra-terrestrial mass ahead of me. My eyes are watering, I feel like I’m inhaling sand and my lips are chapped rather painfully. And I’ve only been in the White Rann of Kutch for half an hour.
I look up at our camel, Kanudo (one of the many names for Lord Krishna) and over to his master. Kanudo has a streak of pure white froth across his face as he breathes heavily, shifting his weight impatiently from one leg to another. His master looks up from playing a game of snake on his pre millennial phone. As his maternal instincts kick in, he holds the reins and leads Kanudo around in circles to walk off his jittery restlessness. “Kanudo is just a child”, he explains. “Came to me as a toddler from Rajasthan 2 full moons of Kartik ago.” (It sounds strange in English, but that’s how different the world out here in the Kutch desert is. Even time is measured differently.) Out here, where cell phone signals are weak, manmade and natural elements non-existent, and nothing but a flat landscape that resembles an arctic ice sheet for as far as the eye can see, life skills take on a completely different meaning. Letting the direction and temperature of the wind foretell the weather, letting the stars give you directions, and letting this beast of burden navigate the tricky salt marsh terrain.
This seasonal salt marsh, was a shallow region of the Arabian Sea back in the day of Alexander the Great. Now this heavily protected area close to the Pakistan border fills up with water only during the monsoon and turns into a mystical wonderland for the rest of the year. Stories of strange dancing lights seen at night, a phenomenon called Chir Bhatti, are whispered through our group. An eerie chill runs down our spines as the sun begins to set on this freak stormy day in an otherwise unprecedentedly hot spring. We look up at the cloudy sky, not a star in sight. “On clear nights, the moonlight bounces off the salt terrain, casting a beautiful bright whiteness over everything,” Kanudo’s master tells us.
We have now bribed him to take our camel pulled cart further into the nothingness, where the salt is whiter with fewer footprints to mar its purity. I watch as Kanudo’s hooves sink ever so slightly every time he sets them down on the salty soil. Suddenly, the camel’s owner jerks into action, and gestures wildly, trying to tell an SUV not to venture into this area. Too late. The mammoth Fortuner is stuck, wheels frantically spinning in place, serving only to dig his grave deeper and deeper. As is typical of India, a crowd gathers, with every self appointed off roading expert shouting out contradictory instructions. The camel owner manages to catch some mobile signal and alerts his brethren who shortly arrive to the rescue.
With Kanudo racing his friends, we rush back to the tented camp for the night, all of us on that cart looking out in silence as a cold breeze plays havoc with our hair and thoughts. There are so many worlds within our world, some of them not too far from where we live. But they couldn’t be more removed from our lives in the cities, with our WiFi powered singularly slanted view of the world. Here, it doesn’t matter what year it is, time is only measured by the centuries of change that affects this slowly evolving mass that has risen from beneath the sea. Back at the camp, I jump off the cart, looking into young Kanudo’s now tired eyes. I’m glad I could see this schizophrenic part sea bed, part barren land through these eyes. I’m glad I had his perspective on this strangely powerful land that the greatest men in the history of the region’s civilisation failed to conquer.