One of the great things about visiting my friend Nitin is that he has lots of guests passing through from all over the world. Each of them has things they want to do and we often group up and share rides and trips – often to places we hadn’t thought of. On our third day in Jaipur this was the case. On this day some of our new friends wanted to go to Sambhar Lake. I hadn’t heard of it before but was excited to learn about it. It is about a 60 kilometre drive west from Jaipur. To get there we would need a taxi and so we split the cost and our driver, Karan, arrived just after breakfast. The city of Jaipur petered out quickly and before long we were on a highway. The roadside was lined with dhabas offering cheap food and lodging, and the road itself was filled with its patrons – large and elaborately decorated transport trucks and buses heading for points unknown.
After some time Karan turned to us and said “There is the new Pepsi plant.” The building was attractive – we all remarked that it barely looked like a factory. Instead it looked like many of the other classic Rajasthani buildings we’d seen. Almost regal in a way. We talked about our admiration for the building and I imagined that the jobs it likely created. With that in my head I was a little shocked at what Karan said next. “It’s a really bad place.”
Since Pepsi moved in to the area, massive changes have been happening in the region. Now, instead of the water in this part of Rajasthan providing for the people in the nearby region, it is quenching the thirst of much of India in the form of sugary, fizzy drinks. Karan then asked us: “We are going to pass very nearby to my village. Can we stop and have chai with my family?” Of course we said yes.
On the way we first made a stop at a nomad village. These people specialized in blacksmithing, making all sorts of tools and knives. As we got there we were invited to sit down and watch a young man perform magic tricks. Some started out simply – on par with pulling coins from behind people’s ears. But as they went they became more and more complicated. Snack crackers were conjured out of thin air. One of his more impressive feats was to make balls of larger and larger sizes appear inside his mouth. He would close his mouth and a ball the size of a sugar cube would be in it. Then he’d close it again and a larger one would appear. Eventually he was able to make a couple of 1.5 inch balls appear. I actually knew how this was done, having read about it in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Tahir Shah. This, he said, was not magic but rather, a stunning feat of muscle control. The magician was literally slowly and carefully regurgitating objects he had swallowed before we arrived. Before long we had a large crowd around us, following us through their village, occasionally asking for photos which Daegan was happy to oblige.
The area around was parched with brown vegetation everywhere and many women walking with silver jugs of water on their heads. Clearly water was at a premium here. Soon we turned on to the road in to Karan’s village where he and 65 of his relatives lived. As we pulled in he gestured to the land around us. “Before Pepsi came, these fields were all green. Now we have only one working well left and one field. Some people have no working wells. Now I live in Jaipur and drive a cab and send money home to my family. I see them only every 2-3 weeks but since we were driving nearby I wanted to see my family. If the wells weren’t dry I would be here all the time with them, on my farm.”
We were invited to his room and sat on his bed next to the television. Other than that, the room had a table and a closet. Soon, relatives began arriving and sitting across from us while Karan went out to round up more. As I was able to speak some basic Hindi I was able to learn that the first two men who arrived, both Karan’s uncles, were teachers at the near by agricultural school – an internationally famous school where many people come to learn about local agricultural methods. More and more people arrived along with chai. We meet more of Karan’s uncles, his mom, and his octogenarian grandmother. Eventually, his wife came in wearing a a thin, red veil. Karan mentioned that there were some other relatives of a different caste so she was required to wear it. After that we were shown around the village, first to see the indoor/outdoor kitchen. Then, across the yard we went, winding our way behind a building. There was a buffalo, and some cows relaxing in the shade of a tree. We realized then that we were seeing the source for the milk in our chai. For much of the world, knowing where your food comes from is as common as knowing which grocery store you bought the ingredients for your lunch in. Many things are as local as your literal backyard. It was striking to see the local and the global worlds colliding like this. One world in which an entire country’s thirst is quenched from one area, and another where much of what one consumes is sourced not from thousands or even hundreds of miles away, but feet away.
Finally, it was time for us to leave and head for our original destination. As we were about to pull away, Karan’s grandmother leaned her head in to the car. In a mix of Hindi and English she let us know she wanted us to have lunch with them and spend the entire day there. Unfortunately, though, time didn’t permit and we headed out.
As we left and headed for Sambhar Lake, I thought to myself the simple act of drinking a Pepsi with lunch can not only quench my thirst but even bring me both an interesting experience in rural Rajisthan, both of which we loved. But what we might not think of, as we take that drink, are the thousands of lives we change forever in the process. This village has changed a great deal in a very brief period. What other changes are on the way?