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Drought in India: Disrupted rhythms of nomadic family life

The drought in India separates nomadic families by disrupting the rhythms of the seasons. Over a saucer of chai at the camp of some Maldhari tribeswomen, our blogger finds out nomads like to go home, too, but can't without the monsoon season in full gush.

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Only five women were in the camp, plus a child of about two years old. The men who'd accompanied them were still out with their herd of cows.

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Guest blogger

A freelance writer and photographer, Michael is founder of the educational non-profit organization Traditional Cultures Project.  His first book,  "Men Of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold," recounts his adventures traveling with one of the world's last working camel caravans on  the ancient salt trading routes north of Timbuktu; his second book, "Joshua & Isadora: A True Tale of Loss and Love in the Holocaust," tells the remarkable story of how his paternal grandparents met while escaping from Eastern Europe during World War II. He lives in northern New Mexico with his girlfriend Kelly and their son Luke, who just started kindergarten. They have four dogs (and will probably have two cats by the time Michael gets home from India).

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About 50 miles from their village, they were heading away from it as slowly as possible. They'd tarried here for about a week, hoping that the rains would start so they could turn around and go home. But the grass here was running out, and they thought they'd probably have to move again in the next few days.

Friendly and eager to chat, the women insisted we sit and have tea, and we gladly obliged.
The women all wore lehenga cholis – long skirts with halter tops and headscarves. Three looked to be in their 20s, one in her late 30s, and another in her 50s. All had gold nose rings and earrings, silver rings on their toes, and flip-flops on their feet. A couple of them wore the Hindu bindi on their foreheads, and the forearms and hands of the eldest two were covered with geometric tattoos.

A pot was balanced atop three stones, with twigs ignited beneath it to cook the tea.

They were no strangers to the road, usually migrating for more than half the year, they told us, settling into an easy banter in Gujarati with Lalji, who translated.

"Every day a new village; every day a new fire hearth; every day a new well," said Puriben Rozia, who was dressed in vivid orange and spoke in animated tones. Though they are nomadic, she said, they always look forward to going home. 

Jivanben, from the same family as Puriben, laughed and said, "For most of the year I live with my husband's family, but I always return to my parents' village during monsoon – and look where I am instead, sleeping in a field!"

She was in charge of the tea, which was classic Indian chai, made with milk from their own cows and dosed with plenty of sugar. It was served in typical Maldhari fashion – in saucers, which are easier to pack and travel with than cups.

Meanwhile, the patriarch of the family, Amrabhai Rozia, who was father-in-law of three of the women, arrived, just in time for chai. Puriben, along with her sisters-in-law Lavuben and Rajuben, held their headscarves out and at an angle, like gauzy walls between them and Amrabhai. In this region, social custom demands that women Maldharis hide their faces from their husband's fathers, uncles, and older brothers, as a show of respect. But they kept on talking while Amrabhai sat silently sipping his chai.

Lavuben, who looked to be in her late 20s, said that this was the first time in her life that there had been a "special migration" due to drought during monsoon season. On their usual migration, the whole family travels together,  but this time she'd only brought her two-year-old and left her three other children – ages 4, 6, and 7 – back in the village; one was with her mother, one with her mother-in-law, and one with her brother-in-law.

"We took the cattle, they kept the kids," she said.

Life on the road is tough, and they'd already traveled for eight months solid "which is why they don't go to school," Lavuben added. It was better for them to have some time to rest and stay in one place. 

Puriben agreed. She had left two children behind.

Lalji, sympathetic, said it must be difficult to be without them.

It was, Lavuben nodded, but she knew it was better for them to be home.

"And maybe we'll get to go back soon," she said. "We call every day on our mobile phones to check in. And the first thing we ask is, 'Is there rain?'"

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