Nothing grows in the desert, they say. And what grows does not have the semblance of life as one conventionally expects life to be. Banni is a long tract of land in Kutch that became a desert when King Ghulam Shah Kalhora of Sindh built a dam at Ali Bandar and decided to divert the course of the Sindhu River, turning its rich rice fields into a salt waste. As the waters receded, Banni (which in Sindhi means farm) began to turn brown. The soil turned sandy, the green withered, the people left.
Banni became a desert. It still is. And yet deep within it there is color, there is song. Lack of either one may signify lack of life. But here in Banni a way of life has come to stay, dictated by the land, by the desert.
Traditionally a grassland, Banni belongs to no one. Yet those who live in it, hemmed by its barrenness, belong to it, finding sustenance from it, giving back the earth its own sustenance.
For here grow grasses, of varied names and fibers, that are rich food for cattle. Here live the proud maldaris, the cattle-breeders, raising and selling some of the finest bulls and bullocks and yet not selling a cow. Although Muslim , rather than Hindu, a maldari continues to think of the cow as a mother. (How then can he sell it? he says.) And here live women who know the essence of freedom, never having known spaces that are closed. Though dressed in tradition, almost bound in it, they move around with ease like biblical princesses. Their kingdom verily is the desert.
There is no road to Gul Beg's house, as there are no tracks in the desert. Only sands. They lend to the landscape its uniformity, its quality of bleakness. Two hours in the desert and we begin to look old, white with its soft, fine sand. Our eyes itch with fatigue, having gazed at miles of barrenness, the babul growing wild and sand-colored lizards boring holes in the earth and disappearing. No other life, no other sound.
Suddenly a vision - a cluster of finely thatched conical roofs. They are the ''bhungas'' of Dhordo, a village in Banni made famous by its chief resident, Gul Beg. He is a maldari. His cattle are famed in these parts, as is his hospitality. In many ways he embodies the quality which in the desert is known as ''muruwa,'' meaning ''virility'' - a quality composed of courage, endurance, loyalty to the clan, generosity, and hospitality.
He is an aristocrat, they say. He owns no camel. Rides his own jeep while his son roars through the desert on a motorcycle. His house is open to all visitors. There is always food, music of the Sufi saints from a tape recorder, and charpoys to rest on in a guest bhunga. Gul Beg has even installed his own Gober Gas plant, which lights three of his bhungas and provides cooking gas at all times.
Gul Beg receives us with an indulgence that is reserved for children. Like tired camels we rush to the water, to drink, to wash away the sand and look young again. A glass of water in the desert does the trick. We begin to feel a breeze as we settle down on the cool mud floor of his bhunga.
Each bhunga exudes color, reflects the joy of the dweller. Mirrors beam from circular white walls. Embroideries woven by grandmothers as part of a dowry hang down from the roof. Cushions covered in brilliant ''mashroo'' cloth rest on charpoys.
No signs of the desert here. The men look young and sturdy, the women are garbed in brilliance. Their ears bear large rings of gold. Around the neck rests a heavy gold ring. From the nose drips a flower of gold reminiscent of nose rings that camels once wore.
Gul Beg looks younger than his 60 years - a tall, lean man with vivid black eyes and a black goatee that unites with the black of his head. He has the looks of an Arab. Centuries ago his ancestors came from Arabia, he explains. They first came to Sindh, from where they moved to Kutch about 500 years ago.
Soon generations are traced. Names are remembered and quoted at a staggering pace. His father was Mian Hussain, his father Bapu Mian, and his father was Gul Beg again. There are two Gul Begs, three Mian Hussains, three Bapu Hussains, in the family. As he traces out his family tree we begin to detect the neat ties of kinship and somewhere in the hoary past an eponymous ancestor.
We soon realize that caste has entered the desert, giving definite patterns to the life of its dwellers. Scattered in Banni's 40 villages live the Jats, the Raysipotras, the Sumras, Bhattis, and Junejas. Gul Beg belongs to the Mutwa caste. Each caste behaves like a community living in its own village of bhungas. Members keep their solitudes. They neither see each other nor intermarry.
''My daughter may come out in front of strangers but never in front of other caste members; if they observe purdah from us, we must, too,'' says Gul Beg. He lives with his entire clan, 170 of them, each family in its own bhunga, clustered in the village of Dhordo.
Gul Beg's village prides itself in embroidery work which they call the Kutch Bharat, done entirely by women. His daughter Popli is now an agent for an export agency that deals in Kutch embroidery in Bombay. She calls upon 400 women from 12 villages. They take the work home and earn three rupees (30 cents) a day.
There is no danger in the desert except the wolf, Gul Beg tells us. ''There is no crime here, a murder may happen once in 50 years. There are no thieves, no liquor, no opium, just bidi (cheap cigarettes).''
''We have everything here,'' says Popli. ''I have never been outside except to the town of Bhuj a few times. But whenever I go I like to come back. There is no freedom outside the desert.''
They have found their freedom within isolation. For in the desert, where there are no shut spaces, man seems to be the ultimate measure of things.