Grains of hope

Elinor Goodman leaves the tourist trail to find hardship and resilience in India's Rajasthan Desert

It was a chastening time for a Brit to be in India, and not just because of the aftermath of Celebrity Big Brother. I emerged from a week riding around the Rajasthan Desert to find the papers full of the news that Tata, the Indian steel giant, was taking over the Anglo-Dutch company Corus.

Much of the coverage was couched in terms of reverse imperialism: payback time for the British Raj, as one paper described it. Ratan Tata, the company group chairman, was lionised for having the audacity to buy what was presented as one of the jewels in the British industrial crown.

The Indians are proud of their economy, which is growing at roughly 8 per cent a year. Proud, too, of their business leaders, particularly when they have success abroad. In England, Lakshmi Mittal may get a bad press when he gives money to the Labour Party, but in his home state of Rajasthan, up towards the borders with Pakistan, he is a hero. My taxi driver for the journey between Khimsar and Jodhpur told me how Mittal was paying for wells in 23 villages - and, after five years of failed monsoons, wells are what bring this incredibly harsh landscape alive.

My taxi driver spoke with pride of the vast house Mittal had built for himself in Delhi. In the grounds, I was told later, he has constructed a hugely expensive fountain. Unfortunately, it has taken to spewing frogs all over his garden. The driver would no doubt be even more pleased if Mittal built a similar one at his house in Kensington Park Gardens, within frog-spewing distance of Kensington Palace.

But this is one of the remotest parts of India, where most people have little idea of what is going on outside their communities. We did have the slightly surreal experience of riding past a cluster of traditional thatched farm huts made of mud and hearing the cricket booming out. But radios, still less satellite television, are a luxury that few of these farmers can afford. Their priority - water - is far more basic. The state government delivers it to tanks in the main villages, but the farmers then have to get the water home, often transporting it for miles in huge great swaying camel carts, if they are lucky. Nearer the towns, you can see the difference irrigation makes: after miles of dusty sand, punctuated by stunted trees, you come across bright green fields. Usually, we were told, this was because that particular family had enough men working in the cities to pay for the electricity necessary to power a well.

I had reservations about being a tourist in a country that is still so poor. I didn't like the idea of going round gazing at people like they were anthropological exhibits. But, in fact, we were as much an object of curiosity for them as they were for us as we rode round the desert. Our safari was led by "Bonnie" Singh, our horses decked out in his red and yellow ancestral colours, with his standard-bearer bringing up the rear.

Schools quite literally closed so that the kids could come out and look at us. For many of the children, it was the first time that they had seen either Europeans or horses. They would squat in the sand and giggle, calling out, "Tat ta, good morning" and occasionally, more disconcertingly, "How old are you?" As we took photographs of the girls in their brilliantly coloured saris, their mothers stared back at us through gaps in their veils with the same intensity we were focusing on them.

The Rajasthan Desert is way off the tourist map. I went there because I wanted to go to a camel fair. At Nagaur, there were more than 5,000 belching camels for sale, many wearing make-up and jewellery, tethered in rows that stretched off into the desert. We could have made the 150km trek on camelback but, instead, we rode Marwari horses, which are a breed unique to this area, with ears that meet at the top like inverted commas.

On our trip, we saw a way of life it's difficult to imagine having got so close to in any other way. Riding through one settlement, we met a group of pregnant women who came out to feed our horses mints because, for them, horses were a sign of good luck. At another a one-eyed warlord met us with a cracked five-gun salute, and then showed us round his house, stuffed with objects he had acquired during his earlier life raiding villages in Pakistan. Cupboards full of swords and guns; beautiful quilts and an old gramophone.

On the first day, I felt there was something obscene about us sitting down at table and eating a three-course hot meal, surrounded by children whom I presumed to be malnourished. Bonnie Singh, who is trying through various water projects to keep his local farmers on the land rather than watch them join the urban poor - insisted they weren't hungry, as evidenced by how the great majority would always refuse food if offered it. And, indeed, the children never asked for anything: just laughed, running after us when we left, pursued on one occasion by a herd of goats and their angry owners, dressed in brightly coloured saris.

When I got to Delhi, "Moni" Malhoutra, who works for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, was much less sanguine about the diet of these communities. Indeed, he was pessimistic about how such farmers can survive in what is one of the few inhabited deserts in the world. After five dry years in which their crops have failed, they are having to buy in food both for themselves and their animals, as there is very little left to forage in the desert. But, a million metaphorical miles away from the India of Celebrity Big Brother, these families were unaware of how relatively poor they were. Yes, they welcome investment in the infrastructure by NGOs and the government, but not pity, or tips from conscience-stricken tourists.

Which brings us, of course, to global warming. We in the west have been responsible for it so far. But as India becomes more industrialised it, too, will become a major contributor. The Indian government will not do anything to restrict the use of fossil fuels if that makes it more difficult for its citizens to begin to catch up with those in the west. Indeed, some Indian politicians see climate change as an excuse to keep Asia in its place in a new form of imperialism. But whoever is responsible for emissions in future, the people of the desert will be the ones who will suffer first. Meanwhile, in my personalised version of carbon trading, I am putting money into a collecting box for WaterAid every time I have a bath.

Elinor Goodman was travelling with Wild and Exotic

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack