top of page
  • Writer's pictureAnna Crichton

I've got to hongi a camel!

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

I’m in Bhuj, this desert town I mythologized about as being full of Turbaned Rabari village people and camels wandering the streets. They are there but not of course in the numbers one fantasises about, and they are specks faraway in the dusty landscape. A landscape that has been promoted heavily by the govt as being the next best place to build giant industrial parks, taking away valuable grazing land from the traditional nomadic herdsmen. That means one must explore further out for something to feel remote and authentic where I can indulge in the notion that I am the only one. But before romanticising any more I shall go back to Ahmedabad where my blog no 3 last left off.

After checking my diary I’ve just realised it’s about time to write another blog, the days seem to not need a name or a date. I have such an admiration for good writers and wonder at the millions of words they have stored in their heads, besides knowing where to use them, and how to place them. My head churns images, selfishly twisted to form some oblique message that perhaps few can interpret. But I hope for some atmospheric metaphoric communication. Accompanied by words as in The New Zealand Herald there is a cue, but with a more ‘fine art’ approach one is not meant to spell stuff out. If these wood blocked stories do not reach people with their abstract approach I can always go gardening.

While feeding my addiction need of rambling with the intention of getting lost in Ahmedabad’s old city, it’s about time for a fluid english speaking conversation. All wishes are granted in India so a magic fairy appears before me, a Jain nun in the whitest white muslin robes,  being pushed by a younger version of herself on the way to the temple. She speaks perfect English, studied for 50 years under Indian Father John and Father David. She touches no money and depends completely on the generosity of others for food and coming from a middle class family she would have had personal belongings and assets which she gave up to follow her path. Her skin was clear and lineless, her voice articulate and passionate, her hands flexible and expressive. I hand her some almonds, she takes only a few, never more than ‘one needs’. I asked her if she had a recipe for a good life, some wise instructive words. I recorded her words but can’t figure a way to download onto this blog, they mainly were about not fighting for your rights as what will be will be. I happened to wonder whether this advice came from a secluded world where all is internally pure and catered for, and perhaps global warming really is in the hands of the Jain gods. I’ll have to listen carefully to the recording again and make some interpretations.

It’s been a celebratory day of spoken english communication, once back at my Heritage Haveli lodgings in the old city I meet five New Yorkers and one adopted 18 year old Cambodian girl. Nick and Jim have lived in Mexico city for 25 years, another couple with their 18 yr old daughter are on their way back from Cambodia from visiting their daughter’s grandmother in a remote village. Her mother died giving birth to twins, one died. Nick is a food blogger and journalist, Jim is a painter and is writing a ‘love story to India’ guide book. Both have been coming every year to India to compile observations, insights, thoughts on exploring in India. Both are tall white middle aged men who speak of the joy of children running up to them wanting to test their english skills, small children laughing with them, inviting them into their simple homes and the lovely spontaneity and inspiring trust that the Indian has for strange white men. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ happily does not happen here.

The local english newspapers are like reading a make believe tragic comedy on cheap paper. Besides the horrible stories of rapes, ears being cut off, women forced by greedy relatives to throw themselves on their husbands burning pyres, dalit grooms being stone pelted while riding through upper caste neighbourhoods, bulls climbing onto the roof of a supermarket… it’s a place where the panorama is so huge that one cannot comprehend where to start contributing. Being in India, I won’t say ‘visiting’ is like taking a course on changing your whole perception on how the world should be.

Otherwise India is a country where I feel perfectly safe, safer than a dark street in Auckland. You’ll get a youth following you with what you might imagine to be dark intentions, but break the stare and the silence and you will have an engaging harmless conversation. I find myself moving my head from side to side (though not too many times) – it’s infectious this head wobble – I think it communicates ‘yes, I hear you’, though we europeans initially interpret the wobble as being a ‘no’ – which does end up in some confusing situations.

Back to the Mata ni Pachedi workroom to print position where the block print images will land. The cotton and silk lengths are pinned tight, I compose the image shapes on the long table before Chitaran presses the block into the natural dye, them thumps hard on the block with his palm side to make a strong even impression. 25 varying compositions later we make our way to running river water to remove any excess dye in the fabric. The river is a shallow, slimy, sludgy, dark metallic grey toxin laden tributary of the vast Sabarmati that runs through Ahmedabad. So my organic hand woven, naturally dyed pieces of arty cloth are now to be washed here. There is no choice – the cloth needs running water and there is very little of this in Ahmedabad as the monsoon season is well over. Mounds of what appear to be piles of rags lining the river house the poor who earn a few rupees washing others clothes in this ‘river’. Flashes of brilliant colour swoop and flit all around, one of the treats of travelling is observing the very different bird and animal life.

Now the pieces are boiled (well) with tamarisk flowers to fix the colour, then hung out to dry, and for the first time I’m able to see the production as a whole. Not quite a whole though, I have a trip out to see how my muslim embroiderers are progressing with four embroideries that will enhance the hangings in the exhibition. Our auto takes us to dusty outskirts of Ahmedabad to a poor muslim area, dirt roads, huts, sooo much piled up rubbish, surprised stares from shy muslim women and children. Creations being beaten from recycled metal…maybe eggbeaters? Scrap brought to life in inventive ways. I video our walk along the roads to the third floor of a concrete block building, a typical compound housing goats and partial faces behind curtains. All the world is a village.

Flashbacks of my time in Varanasi two years ago…visiting my embroiderers there. But here the embroidered stories are not Indian, they are global. I can not make a purely decorative piece, I feel like I’m short changing the viewer, and after years of drawing for newspapers and magazines to communicate an issue I find it impossible to be just pretty.  I’m pleased I came at this point as my instructions were starting to be creatively interpreted by the embroiderers so with drawings, hand gestures and google translate I’m hoping all is now clear as I will not be visiting again until all the work is done.

I buy three small copper pots from a temple shop, they are wrapped in sacking and contain holy water from the Yamuna river near Agra, the water keeps one’s household free of negative energy. I’ll give one to each of my children, and my partner Debbie – she will believe me! We can place powers wherever we wish no matter how peculiar a placement, if an object, icon, landmark speaks quietly to you that is how it is. I’ll be able to lay blame on that small sacked covered vessel if the bench is covered in dirty dishes.

I’m in Bhuj now – this desert town I mythologized about as being full of Turbaned Rabari village people and camels wandering the streets. They are here but not in the numbers one fantasises about, they are specks with their herds far off in the dusty landscape mostly. A landscape that has been promoted heavily by the government as being the next best place to build giant industrial parks and in turn taking away valuable grazing land away from the nomadic herdsmen. That just means one has to explore farther away for somewhere remote and authentic where I can indulge in the notion that I am the one and only on this planet.

I’ll be in Lakhpat tomorrow, a ghost town a not far from the Pakistan border, look it up on the map, it’s in the middle of nowhere, the roads are supposed to be dodgy, but one has to find out for oneself. It was once a rich town and is now a city of ruins surrounded by a 7 km fortress wall. In 1819 a massive earthquake shifted the course of the Indus river that ran alongside the town and thus Lakhpat lost it’s importance as a port. A permit is needed to enter this area as it’s a strategic India/Pakistan outpost and who knows what a silly tourist might do. Many forms goes with out saying.

It’s another sort of journey this one where I’m just swanning here and there for two weeks look look looking. It reminds me just a little of my first OE in India – backpack, bidis, sarong and haggling far too much. Now I don’t mind paying more every time, I can afford it and they need it.

Until Lakphat Anna


bottom of page