On a hot October afternoon, Saajan Bheel is taking a nap under a tree amid rust-coloured sand dunes. He has miles to go before he reaches a place where he can find work. Saajan, who seems to be in his forties, has already travelled around 60 kilometres on foot but has to walk another 70 kilometres or so to arrive in Pithoro, an agricultural town in canal-irrigated Umerkot district. He is worn down by the grueling journey — a seemingly endless walk under a sun that shines brightly like a metal disc just brought out of a high temperature furnace.
A soiled white turban frames his thin dark face, glowing with a film of sweat mixed with sand. His clothes need washing and his face has grown a stubble.
A minor comfort he has is that he is not alone. His 10-year-old son Chaman, his 65-year-old uncle Mangal Bheel and his two young cousins are also with him. As are their four camels (that are carrying the children as well as the family’s luggage), 12 cows and 13 goats. They left their village, Rohiraro, three days ago, finding it difficult to cope with the rigours of life in their drought-stricken desert dwelling. They often went hungry during the journey, receiving occasional meals thanks to the generosity of people living along the way.
Saajan’s wife, his daughters and other female members of his extended family have already gone to Pithoro — in a rented van. The only person left behind in his home is his 70-year-old father Peero Bheel. A veteran of several drought-driven migrations in his earlier years, he is no longer able to travel long distances.
Life back in Rohiraro has gone quiet. Many houses have no one inside. Others have far fewer people – mostly small children, women and the elderly – than they did before drought forced local residents to migrate in large numbers. There is hardly any animal in sight. The migrants have taken them along to greener and less dry places.
Peero, a gaunt older version of his son, has a grey brooding moustache and is wearing a coloured turban which is a little too big for his head. He rushes out hurriedly when a local boy tells him that someone has come to see him after having met his son. “What happened to him? I hope he is fine,” he says with unmistakable parental anxiety in his voice.
He breathes easy only after he is told that his son and his companions are fine and well on their way to their destination. The next thing that he says is that he is already missing his son and grandchildren though he also seems to be aware of the karmic nature of life. When he was younger, Peero would do the same: take his family along with him outside the desert whenever there was a drought, leaving the elderly behind. “Now my children have grown up and they take their families with them, leaving me behind.”
He is also worried if his son will find work immediately after reaching Pithoro and recalls how landowners in canal-irrigated areas were much more accommodating in the past. Finding work was easy and wages were reasonable, he says. Landowners are much less cooperative now, he says, and wages are as low as 200 rupees per day. “This is insufficient considering how prices of everything have risen.”
Yet, Peero observes, even these meagre earnings are better than starving in the dry desert. His concern about his son’s prospects in Pithoro turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. When Saajan reaches there on October 16, he finds out that he will have to wait for at least four weeks to be employed. The season for picking cotton is already over and sugarcane harvesting is still some time away.
A local landowner has allowed him and his family to stay on his farmland – in shacks made from dried tree branches – and their cattle can graze on private and public pastures nearby. They still have to fetch drinking water from half a kilometer away and their provisions have all run out.
And they have no money to buy food — only a promise from the landowner that he will lend them 10,000 rupees soon. “That money will help me and my family survive until we get work,” says Saajan.
This excerpt is part of the Herald's November 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.