The Day I Met The Gurjars

Over the years, and even before I declared myself a photographer, I photographed several towns, districts, tribes, people and their homes running along and across the Aravalli mountains. I’ve been driven along the fold mountains ever since I was born, either to reach our ancestral home, or that of our relatives, and now my parents’ and brother’s. In recent years, my brother, Deepak, has driven me around hundreds of miles, through villages and tribal areas that made for a fascinating experience. Because of his extensive travel experience and knowledge of the areas and communities, he’s fully familiar with the places I will find interesting, as a photographer. His good connections in the land have proven useful too, to get access to no-go zones. People who would normally not entertain you, happily welcome you, because there is a common language and understanding once we have had a chance to connect.

This day was one such experience. We drove far from Jaipur and reached a town habited by the Gurjars (aka Gujjars). There was a tense environment upon approach. Gurjars have been, until recently, a lot in the news because of rioting, killings, disruption. They are a feared tribe of the North. Their men are tall, physically strong, fierce and rough in approach, proud but with a patriarchal mindset. They are known for charging before speaking. They own swords and carry knives hidden in their clothing. That’s what I’m told. Basically speaking, you cannot afford to be a gurjar’s enemy in those regions. I sort of worried thinking what might happen. They had rioted on the highway only a few days before we went there.

So, here we were, myself and Deepak, entering this village. We got off at the square where many heavy-built men with sun-kissed ruggedness and long moustaches were seated on their Enfields and Hero Hondas, or on a raised chabutara. Two of them got up with their sticks to enquire the purpose of our visit. Deepak got out of the car to speak to them. After a few minutes, he returned and asked me to step out of the car and enter the village. “No holds barred. You have a free rein,” he says. That I can do what I like, enter any home I like, speak to any man, woman, child, elderly, take photos of their homes, people and cattle. This came as a blessing for me.

They did, though, kept asking in various ways if I was a journalist. It took me three hours to convince them fully that I was one of them, a Rajasthani, and not there to cause any trouble. That the photographs were for personal use, not commissioned by any publication, that what they share with me will remain with me. No one will find out. I had no qualms about sharing my details with them, just to put their minds at rest. I spent the day chatting with and photographing the tough guys as Deepak patiently waited at the square with the even tougher ones. One sweet young fellow in green, with green eyes too, invited me to his cycle shop. If he’d ever walked on London or LA streets, people would have mistaken him for Kirk Douglas. By god, that resemblance was uncanny.

The toughest nut to crack was the head of the Gurjars. The old man, who Deepak addressed as tau. They had met a few times before, as Deepak had passed through the town a number of times, but never had he sought permission to allow a stranger (me) into their lives. It was the first. Once cracked, tau took me to a few homes himself. Nobody could turn him away. That’s the kind of authority he wielded among the village folk. Deepak waved at me and said, “Now that he’s happy with you, you are set.” I was actually set. That’s when I got to mingle with the toughest lot. The stories they shared will remain with me forever. They got their women to offer us tea and snacks. They preferred I didn’t share photos of their women, but allowed me to photograph them. I appreciate and respect their trust in me.

It was the most gratifying journey, thanks to Deepak who made it all possible for me. Thanks to the Gurjars who welcomed me in their homes and lives, shared stories that changed my perception of them. People might continue to fear them, but they promised me that I can visit anytime I like, give any one of them a call, and they will be there to welcome me.

….. Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

A Strange Connection

Ramdeen Singh Tanwar

2012 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway.

We girls waited in the car while the men went to fetch tea for us. A man with long curled-at-corners moustache and a protective kaffiyeh-style cloth tucked under his cap approached us, dutifully asking us to park the car in a certain way. He worked as a watchman for the highway café. I was instantly taken by his kind and impressive face. Briefly ignoring his request I brought the camera to my eye, gesturingly enquiring if I can take his photograph. He forgot all about the car and stood posing. With that face, I knew nothing can go wrong. One photo. That was it.

I admired the photo. It was superb. He looked very dignified. He was very dignified. I didn’t know when I would meet him again. I kept thinking I should have taken his address. I at least had his name from his uniform badge. But that was it. Years passed. Then…

2017 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway

Bubbles and myself stop at the same café to have some coffee. I look around searchingly. No sign of him. There were several new shops in that block by this time. I ask shopkeepers, pan seller, shoe mender. They have not seen him, but they knew him. So, myself and Bubbles go into the café to have our snacks and coffee.

Suddenly, outside the glass window, I see him trotting towards us.

There he was…. Ramdeen Singh Tanwar. Same dignified face, gentle and welcoming smile. Same moustache, this time grey. He had aged fast. Life was hard for him, and it was apparent. But he stood a proud man. He even remembered me.

I took more photographs of him. This time against the backdrop of Aravalli that ran parallel to the highway, his home since birth. The only home he had known. He was extremely pleased by my gesture. Kept thanking me. This time I asked for his address so I can post his photos to him. I also told him about the photo from 2012.

He could not read or write, he said. He did not even have a mobile phone. So, he would have to go home to get his son to write the address and son’s mobile number for me on a piece of paper. He disappeared. It was getting later and later. The sun had set by now, and it was getting darker. We could not wait any longer as we still had to drive to Jaipur. I was very disheartened. After all these years, I had found him, but again lost him.

As we sit in the car to drive off, he comes running. Hands me his son’s number and their home address. Seeing his enthusiasm, I almost cried. Perhaps, he cried too seeing mine.

And after all this effort, I misplace the paper after arriving in England. But, I was certain I have not thrown it. I wouldn’t. I’m careful that way.

A year after meeting him the last time, I diligently hunt the paper down. I call his son to tell him that I will be sending his dad’s photographs shortly.

My instincts told me I should not waste any more time. That it was time I posted the photos to him. That if I didn’t send them to him now, he probably will never get to see them. Not sure what it was I was feeling, but without further ado, I sent him his photos with a handwritten letter, apologising for the delay in sending.

A week later, his son called to say that the photos were received and that his father was elated at the sight of them. That he was showing off to all his friends and relatives and telling them about meeting me and my family many years apart.

A few months later, his son, without adding any words, sent me a photo of his father with a flower garland around it.

I immediately called Tanwar Jr. to pay my heartfelt condolences. I was extremely sad too. That’s when I knew I did the right thing by paying heed to my instincts. I had a premonition.

The special connection I had with Ramdeenji was hard to explain. Out of nowhere, he made a brief appearance in my life, and also in my family’s life. I spoke about him to all the sincere people in my life. Those who will understand me, and not mock at my story. This encounter mattered to me, and I’m blessed to have special people in my life who appreciate things that matter to me.

2018 – Delhi-Jaipur Highway

A couple of months after his news, I stop at the same café. Ramdeenji’s son was not in town, so I couldn’t meet him. The café lacked lustre this time. The watchman’s vacancy had now been filled, but the void created by the absence of Ramdeen Singh Tanwar can, and will, never be filled.

…… Sapna Dhandh Sharma