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Below the salt in Kutch

| Updated on May 15, 2020 Published on May 15, 2020

The vast openness of the Rann of Kutch is in stark contrast to the closed lives its women lead

Winter 2019. The mercury had dipped enough to accelerate my enthusiasm for a bike trip to the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. A full moon night was around the corner, and I wanted to admire the beauty of India’s only salt desert in the silver light.

Driving from Assam to Gujarat was an adventure that merits a story in itself. When I reached my destination, I got to know that the annual Rann Utsav, a tourism festival celebrated every winter, was under way. I had to leave my Royal Enfield Bullet outside the festival venue and ride a camel cart to the white salt expanses. I spent a few hours capturing on my camera the sunset and moonrise over the flat horizon. The gradients of brown in the salty marshes magically turned a spotless white under the light of the moon.

After sunset, I started looking for a room for the night. Most resorts in the Rann didn’t fit my budget, but a villager kindly offered me a room in the hut he shared with his wife and five children. Gujarat is considered one of the safer places in India for solo women travellers, so I didn’t hesitate to spend the night at a stranger’s house.

My host lit a fire to make me comfortable in the room with floor bedding. While he arranged for extra blankets, his wife struck up a conversation with me. She said, with a tinge of sadness in her voice, that she hadn’t attended the Rann Utsav even though the desert was less than 3km from the house. I gathered that women in the region led a cloistered life that rarely allowed for visits outside their villages or even a chance to interact with the tourists visiting the region.

The arrival of a woman biker — that too from the eastern corner of the country — was a matter of great curiosity among the locals. My host accompanied me to his relative’s house, where a group of women was waiting to see me. They admired my leather jacket as much as the travel photos on my phone. They also wondered how I had been “allowed” to travel such long distances alone. The women, wary of how the men in their families would react, refused to be photographed.

With a heavy heart, I left the village behind to head towards the town of Bhuj. On the way there, I stopped at a mechanic’s shop owned by a retired officer of the Navy. When I told him about my sadness over the closed lives of the Kutchi women, he said that “it was in their best interest”. Cloistered lives “protected them from crimes and also kept them from going astray”, he added.

As I rode out of the Rann, I wished that the openness of the desert would teach its inhabitants to open their minds to the dreams and aspirations of women.

Nirmali Nath is a biker and photographer based in Guwahati

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Published on May 15, 2020