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The girl might have been dead for a few hours, not more. The little body lay twisted in a rather unnatural position, her limbs forming configurations she wouldn’t have been able to assume when alive. The head turned to one side, as if she were asleep–a plausible assumption, had it not been for the rest of her body.
Due to her shattered spine, the torso had bent in a rather awkward and grotesque way. The face, however, hadn’t been harmed. She looked calm and peaceful. She had been spared the terror of looking death in the eye. She lay by the side of the road, perhaps thrown clear of the traffic, thus avoiding the fate of being torn apart by the heavy wheels. Had those monstrous tires grabbed her body, she’d definitely look different now, perhaps more like those corpses down in Bombay after they’ve been exposed to the vultures for a day or two–the whole body an open wound, flesh stripped clean from the bones, covered in dried blood, limbs torn, pieces of flesh hanging from broken bones. This girl’s body showed no such horror. Although inside her young fragile physique almost every bone must have been broken, she retained the look of a sleeping princess.
The man who came walking up the road was an elderly villager, a typical Rajasthani. Typical not only because of his love for color, which his bright-yellow turban displayed so effectively, but even more so through his fiery mustache which had grown so long that the wind folded the two ends and pressed them neatly against his cheeks, nearly reaching his ear lobes. He was lanky, almost as tall as the hind legs of his camel, and he walked proudly.
The desert looked fat and heavy, the sand dunes like pieces of freshly baked butter cake. The setting sun had not yet reached the horizon and the man held his head turned slightly to prevent its rays, still sharp at this time of day, from hurting his eyes. With his camel on a leash, he was on his way home from delivering wood and camel dung to farmers in the region.
He walked along the main road, Rajasthan’s artery to the East–a wide bending river of dust that saw little traffic this time of day.
Occasionally, usually earlier in the day, monstrous machines, lorries bigger than a house, passed through here, stampeding down the path like a herd of wild elephants, their metal bodies alien figures in the landscape, the fierce roar from their engines sounding like the roar of a trapped tiger. Right now however, only the wind spoke.
The old man spotted the girl’s colorful dress from afar, glowing from within the tall weeds that grew at the side of the road, and he instinctively increased his speed to learn her fate. She was a young paniharni, a water carrier, who also performed as a dancer at the local village festivals. The man knew her family well.
What a tragedy. His face expressed anger and rage at the knowledge that she would dance no more. Such a young girl; such an injustice. Her brass water jug lay some fifty feet away. He became aware of it by accident, when it signaled its position by catching a ray of the dying sun. Ironically, it showed no sign of mistreatment at all, and was only slightly dented.
The man left his camel at the scene and ran to the village as fast as he could–yelling and screaming. The sky, now as red as the henna in the women’s hair, began to cast a shadow of blood over the small village, making every one of its mud dwellings look as if it had been mortally wounded by the sun’s powerful rays–an indicative sign from the omnipresent Brahma?
In every household, stoves had been fired up, and pots and kettles sat heavy on low flickering flames. The smell of curry and freshly baked naan drifted through the streets, leading people home for supper by their noses. This was the time for regaining energy, of letting body and mind be comforted by the cooler evening air as the sun slowly lost its power; man and beast would be safe for several hours from the dry heat that made Rajasthan bearable only to those who’d learned from a young age how to cope with its harsh climate.
Because of the heat, Rajasthan operates at a slow pace, at least during the long hours of the day. But at sundown, the village
suddenly gets busy as women and children work around the house–cooking, cleaning, sewing and chatting–while the men- folk, who’ve spent most of the day outside in the hills or fields, sit in groups, joined together in conversation and laughter.
Dark wrinkled faces gathered, turbaned and proud. These people were accustomed to a life of hardship with meager profits. They’d chosen to dwell beneath the temples and palaces of their former glories with their heads held high. The Rajasthani were a race of warriors who fought long for independence from Mogul rule and only after endless struggles finally accepted the supremacy of the British Crown. Yet, their surrender had been bloodless, as if their best qualities shone through in the community’s rational facility, rather than through military confrontation. Not surprisingly, Rajasthan people identified more with the British than any other of the Indian tribes. They were heroes of an amazing past, now old, but still full of pride, honor and wisdom. Now known as storytellers, artists and musicians, they loved nothing more than festivals, to dress as if life’s a permanent carnival and act as if festivities are a necessary part of daily village life.
As a people, they built dreams–on hilltops, in the middle of picturesque lakes and deep inside forests. They created fairy-tale palaces and temples, which, perhaps better than any other of their achievements, spoke of their breathtaking ability to materialize thought. Still, most of the village houses were plain structures, like the folks who dwelled in them. They lacked fancy decorations and thus didn’t compare to those in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer or Bikaner. But what was saved on the houses had found expression with the people themselves. All of the people, both male and female, dressed colorfully, not unlike the performers in a tragic theatrical masterpiece.
Now they stared at the man as he came running into the Village Square screaming. He ran straight to the dwelling the girl shared with the rest of her family, many of whom had not yet returned from the fields.
“Brahma has forsaken us,” he gasped. “Death has come upon us, death, death–“