The Fire Never Dies
“Fire is sacred to all the Rajputs, but especially to the desert people,” Prayag Singh said to me. “It burns within us, and never dies.”
“Is that why you say you have the hottest chilies in all of India?” I asked jokingly.
“Yes,” he said with a straight face. “You will see, perhaps, tonight in the village.” He spurred his camel to a quicker pace, and we followed suit, eager to reach the village of Samrau before dark. We had been warned that “naughty men” sometimes roam the caravan trails at night. It seems the Spice Road has always attracted its share of the unsavory.
I was in Rajastan, Northwestern India with my usual cohorts, Paul and Bruce Harmon. The ancient fortress of Jodhpur was far behind us and we had just mounted the high dunes of the Great Indian Desert in a quest for fire and spice, and history.
Across this desert and across the centuries have traveled the caravans that carried the luxuries of the East: silk and myrrh, gemstones, medicines and ointments, gold, and those commodities that were worth their weight in gold – spices. I was here in India on a quest that would take me, ultimately, around the globe in search of these ancient routes.
It was in Jodhpur that we met Prayag Singh. His people are camel breeders and drovers from Jaiselmer, near the border with Pakistan, and he agreed to help us organize a caravan to his home town and be our guide and interpreter. We had planned to camp along the way but Prayag advised against it, as did everyone we spoke to, citing the “naughty men.”
“We can stay in the villages,” he told us. “The desert people are most hospitable. They may ask us for a token to sleep in their houses, but they will feed us for nothing”
“Very spicy. With the hottest chilies in all of India. Perhaps it will be too hot for you.”
“Not bloody likely!
We secured camels for the four of us and the services of two drovers to help along the way. Prayag taught us how to tie a Rajput turban and we costumed ourselves accordingly. We left Jodhpur on a cloud of music, excitement and spicy aromas.
Our second day out we drove the camels hard in our attempt to reach Samrau before dark. The land smoothed out and we made good time, raising the village on the horizon with plenty of time to spare. As we approached the village we came upon a goatherd who tended a flock of about twenty. His name was Naglaman. He was amazed to see three camel mounted foreigners and with grand gestures invited us to tea. As we dismounted he disappeared into a little shelter he had made of twigs and desert scrub, and reemerged with his “tea service,” one battered old pot, two metal cups of different origins and a couple of desert palm leaves. The leaves he tore into pieces, then folded expertly into conical cups, disposable and biodegradable.
Over tea mixed with wild honey and goat’s milk I asked Prayag what we could expect for dinner in Samrau that night. “Chapatis,” he said. Chapatis are unleaved flatbread made from wheat or, among the desert people, millet.
“Of course. Anything else?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Vegetables.”
“Just like the last one. Are the desert people vegetarians?”
“No no. But they eat meat only on special ocassions, because it is very dear.”
“How dear? For instance, how much would one of these goats here cost?”
I settled with Naglaman the goatherd for 400 rupees (US$12.50) for his fattest kid. He was very pleased with the bargain until I said “But I gotta have a receipt. It’s a business expense.” His smile faded when Prayag translated. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” I said. “It’s just that I have to keep careful records or my publishers will complain.”
“But, Sahib, I don’t know how to write,” he said, and looked at the ground.
“Oh. I see.” I took out my pen and notebook and said, “I’ll write it out for you and all you’ll have to do is sign it.” I wrote it out and handed it to him saying, “There. Just sign you name. Can you do that for me?”
He looked even lower, and lowly said, “I don’t know how to write my name, Sahib.”
I felt like I had just stripped the man naked and whipped him through the streets. Prayag was speaking to him softly in Marwati, his native tongue, when an idea came to me. “Naglaman,” I said, “my great grandfather couldn’t write either. But he would sign documents with his thumb. How ’bout I ink your thumb with this felt pen and you sign the receipt that way?”
The idea that he, an illiterate, nomadic goatherd could actually sign an official document suddenly raised his spirits, pumped up his chest and put the smile back on his face. Raising my pen I said, “Let’s have your thumb.” He stuck it eagerly in my face. I inked it up good, making sure to cover it all, while he looked on with something approaching wonder. I then held the notebook for him and he painstakingly rolled his thumb onto the paper. Prayag wrote across the thumbprint, first in Marwati and then in English, “Naglaman: his mark.” The goatherd was now an honorary member of the order of letters.
I tethered the goat to my camel and we mounted and rode on into the tiny village. Our arrival caused quite a stir, though a happy one. We were conducted to a shade tree to sit and relax while the village headman was summoned.
Soon the headman arrived and we were formally welcomed, told where we might sleep if we cared to stay and invited to share their dinner. The headman’s name was long and difficult for us to pronounce, but we were invited to address him as “Baba,” a term both affectionate and respectful, rather like Uncle. He called us all Sahib. All the while the people had been hungrily eyeing my goat.
“Prayag. Tell Baba that everyone is invited to our feast, as long as they agree to teach me how to cook him in their traditional way.”
The unexpected feast threw everyone into a flurry of preparation. The women went immediately to work in the communal kitchen preparing chapatis and vegetables which they cooked over a slow burning fire of dried camel dung. Men gathered firewood and set up a kitchen and dining area in a wattle and daub enclosure that opened out onto the central yard. Prayag introduced us to a man in a bright yellow turban, explaining that he would cook the meat. “Only men may cook meat,” he told us. “This man will teach you his way.” We called the man “Yellow Hat.”
The goat was dispatched with an old sword according to the ceremony known as “Jatkha.” As Yellow Hat, wielding a Ghurka knife, did the butchering some men spread a layer of earth about two feet wide in the enclosure, set a pile of sticks for a fire on top of it and placed a circle of rocks around that. On top of it they set a brass cooking pot with a concave lid. From somewhere a bottle of white lightening appeared and it was being passed around, leaving a trail of broad grins in its wake. When it reached me I took a long pull, and to my surprise it didn’t taste half bad. It burned on the way down, but I like that. “The fire burns within me,” I joked to Prayag.
“And here it never dies,” he said, again with that straight face.
When Yellow Hat had finished the butchering and had the meat and organs arranged in a tub he summoned me to follow him into the enclosure. From a wooden chest he took out his ingredients and through Prayag he spoke. “I’m cooking this goat in the way of all the desert people. We use the spices that the caravans have always carried, and the red chile powder. We grow the chile in Rajastan and we use it all in Rajastan. The caravans have never carried it because other people find it too full of fire.”
Another man brought out flint and steel and tinder, and while all the men watched in reverent silence, he kindled the fire. Yellow Hat poured what looked like a pint of red chile powder into a brass bowl. I tasted it, and it was indeed full of fire. It wasn’t Habanero, but it was still powerful stuff. On top of that he poured half as much termuric powder. Atop that half as much garam masala, then half as much salt. Over the mound he sprinkled a layer of sweet paprika. Then he mixed them all with his gnarly fingers. Into the pot he poured oil and when it was hot threw in a handfull of anise seeds and cooked them till they all popped. Then he stirred in his spice mixture with some water.
The liquor bottle made its rounds and some of the men were singing songs of old battles and long rides. Yellow Hat put the meat in the pot but kept the organs aside. He put the concave lid on the pot and filled it with water. When it was well heated he stirred it into the pot. He repeated this process till the dish was done. The liquor bottle was now a dead soldier but his replacement soon reported for duty. A boy brought in several small heads of garlic and Yellow Hat and I peeled and separated them, and using our fists crushed them against a flat stone, then set them aside. The last thing Yellow Hat did was to stir in the garlic and some yogurt and let the mixture cook another ten minutes. About the same time some women arrived bearing the chapatis and vegetables. When they noticed that we now had two dead soldiers and one about to die for the cause they set the food down, drew their veils across their faces and wordlessly disappeared till morning.
Dinner was served. Each man laid a chapati in a brass plate and Yellow Hat dished out the stew upon it. It was firey stuff, washed down with more local hootch. But I’ve never eaten more flavorful meat. The spice blend brought out its natural flavor rather than masking it. It made us all break out in a sweat. But we fed richly on the fire.
It was growing late, but Paul, bless him, capped the feast perfectly. From his bag he drew a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon. The desert men had heard of wine, but they had never seen the exotic liquid. They gathered closely and with rapt attention listened as Paul let it gurgle into their cups. They sipped it like nectar and sniffed it like roses and pronounced it the most excellent gift to follow the most excellent feast. With full bellies and full hearts, and a pleasant buzz, we all moved close to the fire. We sang a few songs, Marwati and English. We tried to translate jokes, though the effort was funnier than any punch line.
All would rise with the sun, and so the men began to drift away to their homes. Some others brought us travelers roughhewn wood and rope beds and asked where to set them. “Would you like to sleep in here, next to the fire, Sahib?” the headman asked. I looked out into the yard and saw that the night was fine and said I would like to sleep there. Paul thought that was a good idea too, and so two of the beds went outside and the others came inside. Somebody brought blankets, though the night was so warm they seemed useless. A man scooped up half the cooking fire and poured it between the two outside beds.
All was quiet and dark as I lay down, the only light being the cheery glow of the coals the burned by my side. A mist rolled in over the dry, dry desert, a silvery, delicate, gossamer mist. I closed my eyes and let its tingly fingers caress my face. “Are you sleeping, Sahib?” I heard the deep voice of the headman speaking through Prayag.
“No, Baba. It’s too pleasant to sleep.” I opened my eyes a crack. In the darkness I could make out his white turban, and great white mustachios that moved as he spoke again.
“Sahib, from this night, you will be long remembered among the desert people.”
“Thank you, Baba.”
“Sleep well, Sahib.”
The mist thickened. I pulled the blanket over me, not because of cold, but to keep my clothes dry. I thought of pulling it over my head, too. But the mist was like liquid silk and felt good. I slept, waking now and then to luxuriate, till dawn. And despite the ever increasing moisture in the air, and the hours that passed, the fire never died.