Rabaris are tribals who are regional to parts of Gujarat. I have seen some of the men and women on the bus from Bachhau to Dholavira just a couple of days ago. The women are generally dressed in black, the men in white. Their houses are the traditional bungas made of stone, wood, bamboo and cane. The walls are often covered with mud and cowdung paste. On the inside, the houses are decorated beautifully. I have seen these houses at the Maanav Sangralaya at Bhopal but to see them in an original Rabari village is something else. Tunda Wandh is one such village and I am on my way to visit it.
There is no direct bus from Kera to this village in the mornings. I take a bus to Mundra. After a short wait, I get a bus that will take me close enough to my destination. I get off along the highway at a gateway that leads possibly to Tundawandh.
‘Is there any transport to Tunda Wandh?’ I ask a group of men.
‘I will drop you at Tunda for sixty rupees. There is no other way to Tunda from here,’ says an enterprising auto-driver.
I am not easily convinced. I ignore him. I wait around for a while and after a few minutes a shared tempo starts filling up.
‘I want to go to Tunda Wandh. Where are you going?’ I ask a tempo driver. Many passengers are already seated inside but it is not yet ready to depart. The driver expects more to squeeze in.
‘I am going to Kandagrah. From there it is close to Tunda,’ he says.
‘About 3 kms.’
So I get in and suffer a bumpy ride to this village. There is no need to check my map. Even Tunda Wandh is not marked on it. Once we arrive at the village, the tempo driver tries to sell me a ride to Tunda.
‘I want to be dropped off at the Rabari village. They call it the Wandh,’ I elaborate.
‘Sixty rupees is only to get to Tunda. The Wandh far away. It is nine kilometers from here. It will cost you hundred and fifty rupees.’
Tourists often fall into such traps. Without knowledge, there is no power. Having come so far, they willingly take the bait to travel a little further to reach their destinations. I am not that desperate to see the village. I decide to return to the highway to catch a bus to Mandvi. I take a seat in the shade of a tea stall and ask around casually about the Wandh.
‘Tunda is about 2-3 kms from here. The Wandh is one kilometer further down,’ says the tea vendor.
‘I can drop you at Tunda at the erection site,’ says a young man sitting next to me. He points to a tall building in the distance shrouded in scaffolding. Om Prakash explains that Tunda is the site of a thermal power plant. The Adani power plant is already operational. Tata has been building its plant the last two years. It will take some more years before it becomes opertional. He works at the Tata plant.
‘What happened to your leg?’ I ask pointing to his left wooden leg. I had seen him earlier walking with a stout stick. The prosthetic limb is a little too short to reach the ground. It is stiff and does not bend at the knees.
‘I lost it in an accident. We were going to install a truss at the erection site. Someone adjusted the support and it slipped. My leg got trapped,’ he says cheerfully. His smile hides the loss.
‘Did they take you to the hospital?’ I ask.
‘They took me to a local hospital. I didn’t know what they did. The leg was plastered from thigh to ankle. When they removed the plaster three weeks later, the whole thing was infected. I was taken to Bhuj. The leg had to be amputated from above the knee.’
‘Did they give you any compensation?’
‘I have been meeting and following up on my case for eight months now. Nothing has been paid to me. The top officers don’t even want to see me anymore. They want me to leave the site.’
‘Why don’t you see the panchayat leader?’ suggests the tea vendor. Om Prakash takes down the contact details. Later he confides in me. ‘The panchayat leaders will do nothing. They will collude with the plant officers to shut me out. I will not even get the little I may get. I don’t have enough money to take this to court.’
As we wait for the company van, I finish my lunch of half a loaf of bread. There is nothing else in this village for a proper meal. Trucks and jeeps come and go in the dust from the construction site. Our vehicle arrives. I am dropped off at Tunda at the entrance to the site. I take leave of Om Prakash.
There is a dirt road going to the left of the Tata plant. Further left, one of the tall chimneys of the Adani plant is spewing out thick black fumes. The afternoon heat is intense. Some workers take rest in the small shades they find in this arid landscape. Pipes, beams, trusses, cranes and trunks fill the yards around. I walk my way to the Wandh.
‘Do you know if this the way to the Wandh, the Rabari village?’ I ask a sardar at the next security check post.
‘I know nothing of such a village,’ he says. The Gujarati workers around him point to flags in the distance and say that this path will take me there. Meanwhile, the sardar offers me water and motions me to wait till the others leave. I wonder what he has to say in private.
‘I can see that you are not from these parts,’ he says once the others have left.
‘I am from Bangalore. I have come to visit the village,’ I reply.
‘Maharashtra must be far from here.’
‘Yes. But Bangalore is in Karnataka further south.’
‘Look, don’t go to the village. It’s dangerous,’ he says after a pause.
‘I am sure it’s fine. The village is advertised in tourist brochures. I am sure they are used to visitors.’
‘It’s still not safe. You may get robbed or beaten up. The villagers have turned hostile in recent months.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Some months ago some Biharis kidnapped three village women (utake le gaye).’ He says this with such a grave whisper as if Ravana himself had come and carried away the village Sitas. There was no need for a whisper. The nearest workers are 200 meters away busy next to a noisy cement mixer.
‘The women were never found. The villagers don’t welcome visitors anymore. They don’t even offer water these days if you ask them,’ says the sardar Gurmeel Singh thoughtfully while caressing his neat beard.
It was clearly not a place for me to be wandering around or taking pictures at will. I am beginning to believe in the sardar.
‘You can visit of course if you want; but my advice is that you don’t go to the village. None of the workers go to the village.’
Gurmeel Singh retired from the army some years ago. He has been at this site the last two years. He will be going back to Amritsar in April for a holiday. He volunteered to show me all the tourist places in Punjab if I were to visit the state in April. I thanked him, took his advice and made my way back to the highway. The last I saw of him was in his security cabin unpacking warm homemade parathas for lunch.
So I had come to Tunda Wandh to sample an Indian village of a particular tribal ethnicity. All I got to see was the construction site of a thermal plant of heavy engineering. As I walk back I realize that I have still enjoyed the afternoon. Travel is not just about what’s in tourist brochures. It is about common stories of common people. They enliven your journeys.