Posts Tagged With: rajasthan

Case Closed


I’ve been working on a colorful post about Holi, but that will have to wait a few days. Something else has been on my mind recently, another unpleasant visit to what’s becoming my least favorite place in the universe—the Rajasthan High Court. On the bright side, the saga of my stolen camera might finally be over (if you missed the previous installments in this saga, see Requiem for a Camera and Scouring the Drains of India).

I absolutely did not want to go to the High Court. I expressed those sentiments in my last blog post on the subject, and then I expressed them again when a police officer arrived at my workplace a few days ago. However, the officer met with my supervisor and roped my organization into the whole mess. It was an unfair abuse of power, putting me in a very uncomfortable position. Closing the file became a professional matter, not just a personal one. I had no choice but to comply.

A couple colleagues went with me to the High Court, and we found the appropriate office. I was supposed to meet the magistrate, but the people inside didn’t look like they held much authority. After some interactions in Hindi, I was told to wait. I’m not exactly sure what happened next—it all went down while I was waiting outside—but about fifteen minutes later, I learned that an advocate was coming to argue my case. What case? I just wanted the police to end the investigation so that they would leave me the hell alone. Why did I need to hire a lawyer? It seemed like I was on trial, for nothing more than filing a police report.

I started shouting about corruption, and people stared at me. Well, I thought, let them stare. They should know that to an outsider, this whole system seems ridiculous.

When the advocate arrived, he claimed that I needed his help because I didn’t have enough experience at the High Court. He didn’t realize that I had experienced far more at that place than any rational human being should ever be made to endure. The advocate also claimed that he needed to confirm that I was the right Ben Soltoff, not an impostor. Had he looked at me? I was clearly the only Ben Soltoff who had ever dealt with a case at the Rajasthan High Court or who would ever deal with a case there in the entire course of human history.

Then the advocate produced a form in Hindi that presumably granted him power of attorney, and I wholeheartedly refused to sign. I didn’t understand what the form said, and even if I had understood, I probably wouldn’t have agreed with it. The advocate told me that I would need to come back another day for an English version.

Fat chance.

I wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible, so I stormed back into the magistrate’s office. There was a man sitting there in a dark robe and fancy shirt. He looked like a magistrate. Striding confidently to his desk, I handed him the form that had been given to me by the police officer and demanded, “I want to setter this mattle right now!”

The magistrate ignored my unfortunate spoonerism and looked at the form. Then he pulled out a file that contained my original police report.

“Who was it that snatched your camera?” he asked.

If I had known the name of the kid who stole my camera, then maybe he would have been on trial instead of me. “I don’t know who it was. Just some little kid.”

The magistrate skimmed through my file. “Do you have any doubts?”

Oh, I had plenty of doubts. I doubted that the Rajasthan Police ever managed to successfully enforce the law. I doubted that the Rajasthan High Court played a productive role in society. I doubted that any Rajasthan bureaucrat was qualified for his or her job. And most of all, I doubted that it had been wise to trust the Rajasthan authorities in the first place. But I also doubted that I could say all that and still get out of there in a reasonable amount of time.

“No, your honor, no doubts.”

The magistrate took out a form saying that I gave permission for the police to close the case and that I would come back if they ever caught the perpetrators (which will never, ever happen). I signed the form, and the magistrate shut the file. Case closed.

I have no idea what the advocate would have done if I had hired him. My meeting with the magistrate lasted all of two minutes, requiring no legal expertise whatsoever. And no one ever questioned whether I was the real Ben Soltoff.

But beyond my own personal inconvenience and confusion, what bothered me about the incident was the inefficacy the justice system. In order to be sure that this was uniquely Indian problem, I emailed a family friend who happens to be a lawyer. Here’s his response:

There is no process here [in the U.S.] involved with closing a case like that. When someone files a police report, reporting a crime, an investigation will commence. Yes, some investigations are more involved than others. However, when they are done, if no charges are filed or no further investigation is going to happen, all they do is tell you. The complainant doesn’t have to do anything else. In fact, the complainant has no role in the process. Appearing in court for anything therefore makes no sense, since no court proceeding has begun and there is therefore nothing for a judge to rule upon. Technically, the complainant has no standing to appear in court for anything.

Must be unique to India, and wherever else the filing of a police report begins a “process”.

In India (or at least Rajasthan), anyone who files a police report becomes beholden to the police department. The burden lies with the victim, not with the law enforcement agency. When the crime is a stolen camera, this process constitutes a minor annoyance, but what about more severe crimes? Imagine if a rape victim had to go to the High Court in order to give permission for her rapist to walk free. It’s no surprise that the majority of rapes in India most likely go unreported. The inadequacies of the Indian police were a key issue during the Delhi rape protests this past winter. If nothing else, my troubles with the stolen camera have shown me just how right those protestors were. The Indian justice system is broken, and it greatly needs to change.

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Nine Forts in Nine Days


Most foreigners who visit Rajasthan don’t come on employment visas. They come as tourists, eager to see the state’s renowned forts and palaces. Because I’m one of the few foreigners actually working here, I don’t have much time for typical Rajasthan tour, which involves traveling from place to place and viewing monuments ad nauseum. Most of the trips that I’ve written about on this blog have been weekend excursions to a single city. However, all of that changed recently when my parents and brother came to visit. They were complete, 100-percent tourists, and for a couple weeks, I was a tourist with them. For me, “tourist” sometimes seems like a dirty word; it brings up images of clueless, camera-clad white people in culturally inappropriate clothing who wander around with no idea what’s going on. A tourist is the last thing I want to be. But sometimes I am one, and there’s no avoiding it without staying home.

The best way to describe what it’s like to go sightseeing in Rajasthan is to share one simple fact: during my family’s visit, we visited a fort every day for nine straight days. These nine forts represent a variety of different styles, displaying the rich and colorful history of Rajasthan. I should note that the first three are in Delhi and Agra, which aren’t part Rajasthan but are often included in the same itinerary.

Day One: Old Fort, Delhi

The main thing you need to know about Old Fort is right there in the name. It’s really old. According to rumors, there have been fortifications on the site for over 5000 years, and archaeological excavations have unearthed artifacts dating back to 1000 BCE.  Most of the fort’s current structures were built in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Humayun, and by Sher Khan, who defeated Humayun in 1540 and founded the short-lived Sur Dynasty. The fort is laid out in the typical Mughal style, with high, straight walls around smaller sandstone and marble buildings on a grassy lawn. The interior feels more like a park than a military installation, and it would make a nice picnic spot.


Qila-i-Kuna Mosque in Delhi’s Old Fort

Day Two: Red Fort, Delhi

Delhi does a good job of labeling its forts by their most prominent characteristics. A wall of red sandstone surrounds Red Fort, which is Old Delhi’s most distinguishing landmark. It was constructed in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who is best known for commissioning the Taj Mahal in honor of his late wife. The fort was the centerpiece of his new capital, an incarnation of Delhi that he humbly called Shahjahanbad. Red Fort is better preserved than Old Fort and generally better looking. Shah Jahan’s reign is often considered the pinnacle of Mughal architecture.  The fort has ornately carved marble buildings, and a four-sectioned symmetrical garden (known as a charbagh) with shade and fountains.


They call it Red Fort for a reason.


A pillar with colorful stones inlaid in marble


A symmetrical four-sectioned garden, known as a charbagh

Day Three: Agra Fort, Agra

Agra Fort is so similar to Red Fort that a taxi driver once tried to convince us it wasn’t worth seeing. It has the same sort of red sandstone wall around symmetrical marble and sandstone structures. However, Agra Fort has a distinct advantage—a stunning view of the Taj Mahal. Often this view distracts from the fort itself. Agra Fort existed throughout the Mughal era, but it was renovated by Emperor Akbar in the 16th century and then again by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. After Shah Jahan’s son imprisoned him in the fort, the former emperor was kept in a tower where he could spend every day gazing at the Taj Mahal, which was not only his most famous accomplishment but also the tomb of his beloved wife.

A view of the Taj Mahal from Red Fort

A view of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort


A garden inside the fort walls


The Taj Mahal, as seen from Agra Fort

Day Four: Amer Fort, Jaipur

Amer Fort serves as an effective transition from Mughal to Rajput architecture. Of all of the Rajput rulers, those from what is now Jaipur shared the closest alliance with the Mughals, and that connection heavily influenced their style of building. Constructed in the 16th century by Maharaja Man Singh I, who was so close to Emperor Akbar that he commanded the Mughal Army, the fort has many Mughal features, such as large, open courtyards and pillared halls of private and public audience. Many tourists, especially foreigners, choose to ride elephants up the zigzagging path to the fort’s main entrance.


Amer Fort


Elephants wait at the bottom the hill.


A painted elephant takes tourists up the path to the fort.


Monkeys on top of Amer Fort


More monkeys

Day Five: Taragarh, Bundi

Bundi is one of India’s hidden gems, especially compared to the bustling Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. For most of the time my family and I spent at Taragarh, which sits on a hill above the city, we were the only people up there. The lack of tourist traffic correlates with a lack of upkeep, but the fort’s decaying nature adds to the excitement of exploring it. Troops of rhesus macaques wander through the overgrown, dilapidated buildings and drink from the mostly dried-up step wells. Because there are so few people, the monkeys aren’t very aggressive and don’t normally harass you for food, but just to be safe, a stand at the bottom of the hill provides sticks for fending them off. Unlike the other forts we visited, Taragarh has no informative placards, so I’m not sure when or why it was built. A visit to the fort is more of an adventure than an educational experience. And the view from the top is spectacular.


Abandoned buildings at Taragarh


A dried up step well


A monkey runs along the ramparts.


Looking wistful


Someone get this monkey some Prozac.

Day Six: Chittorgarh, Chittorgarh

Chittorgarh, the largest fort in India, occupies an entire plateau above a flat plain. It’s so large that it comprises its own city, and over 4,000 people live within the original walls. Built in the 7th century, it eventually became the capital of Mewar kingdom. The fort was taken three times in its history, and each time, the inhabitants carried out the gruesome Rajput tradition of jauhar, in which the men rode into battles that they had no hope of winning while the women and children burned themselves to death in order to avoid dishonor at the hands of the enemy. After the last defeat, brought on by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and Maharaja Man Singh I of Amer, Chittorgarh was abandoned, and the capital of the Mewar kingdom eventually shifted to Udaipur. Even though the fort is primarily known for defeat, its predominant landmark is called Vijay Stambha, the Tower of Victory. It’s an intricately carved column built by Maharana Kumbha of Mewar. Visitors can climb to the top for a scenic view of the city and the countryside below.


The Tower of Victory


Temples at Chittorgarh

Day Seven: Sajjangarh, Udaipur

Sajjangarh, also known as the monsoon palace, was the fortified mountain retreat of the rulers of Mewar, built by Maharana Sajjan Singh in the 19th century. Even though it wasn’t used explicitly for military purposes, its name has the suffix “garh,” so I’ll still count it as a fort. The structure is mostly empty these days, but it provides an excellent view of Udaipur’s lakes and mountains. It also gets points for serving as the lair of a Bond villain in the movie Octopussy.




Monkeys near Sajjangarh, with a view over Lake Pichola

Day Eight: Kumbhalgarh, Rajsamand

The ancient Mewar kindgdom had a thing for hilltop forts with striking views. Built by Maharana Kumbha in the 15th century, Kumbhalgarh sits on a remote peak in the Aravali Range. Its 36-kilometer outer wall, which snakes over the nearby hills, is supposedly the world’s second largest fortification, after the Great Wall of China. The fort area contains hundreds of temples and a lot of rugged terrain for exploring.



Day Nine: Mehrangarh, Jodhpur

A trip to Rajasthan can easily lead to fort fatigue, but Mehrangarh is an instant cure. It towers over the blue houses of Jodhpur’s old city, emerging grandly and seamlessly from the earth below. Hands down, it’s the best fort I’ve seen in India, although living in Jodhpur might make me a bit biased. At least TIME Magazine agrees with me. They named it Asia’s Best Fortress in 2007. Within its imposing exterior, Mehrangarh contains well-preserved interior palaces with intricate stone latticework, and the fort museum is clear and organized, a rarity in India.  Built by Jodhpur’s namesake Rao Jodha in 1459 and improved by subsequent Maharajas, the stronghold has never been forcibly overcome.

Bringing my family there made for a suitable end to our trip. For the last several months, Mehrangarh has been a constant presence in my life. Every building in Jodhpur has an accessible rooftop, and every rooftop has a view of the fort. It forms a constant backdrop for my experiences, both my outings as a tourist and, more frequently, my daily pursuits as a working resident.




Ful Mahal (Flower Palace)


Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace)


Mehrangarh at sunset

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If You Are an Indian Bureaucrat

Rubber stamps

I imagine that if you are an Indian bureaucrat, you live and breathe red tape. Procedural formalities pulse through your veins, and you possess an innate drive to complete mindless paperwork. You do not understand the lives of normal human beings outside your office. You assume that everyone shares your encyclopedic knowledge of trivial rules and regulations, and when dealing with people who do not understand, you treat them as if they are mentally disabled.  Efficiency is anathema to you, threatening your employment and your very purpose in life. You rigidly impose a snarl of convoluted guidelines without any regard for the logic—or lack of logic—behind them.  And you are probably, in one way or another, corrupt.

Maybe you work at the Jodhpur Post Office, where you require all packages to be wrapped in cloth, sewn by hand, and sealed with hot wax. You do not offer this service yourself but instead leave it to local shopkeepers, who charge more than it costs to actually ship the package. While you should realize that the invention of packing tape made this method obsolete decades ago, you seem to be stuck in the mindset of the British officials who left in 1947.

Or maybe you work at the Jodhpur Criminal Investigation Department, where foreigners in Jodhpur must register if their visas last 180 days or longer. You know that these visas make no mention of the CID, instead directing foreigners to a place called the Foreigner Regional Registration Office, which does not exist in Jodhpur, but you expect that responsible foreigners will ask a police officer or another knowledgeable citizen to explain the proper procedure. You would not dare make the information easily accessible online, as that would betray your undying loyalty to paperwork and unnecessary complications.

Your office is a non-descript sandstone building in the decrepit Rajasthan High Court, with no markings whatsoever labeling it as the CID. You expect people to wander the premises for 20 minutes and then ask strangers for directions. When a confused foreigner finally stumbles into your office three days after the 14-day registration limit, you not only charge him a non-negotiable $30 USD fine, but also you chastise him for failing to come earlier. Five months later, when he brings another foreigner a full day before the limit, you chastise her as well, asking why she did not come on one of the previous 13 days. If you are an Indian bureaucrat, you believe that people who have just arrived in a foreign country have nothing better to do than enmesh themselves in your beloved bureaucratic entanglements.


The CID office, obviously.

After your lecture, you drag the foreigners through a tedious registration process. You instruct them to get a sheet stamped at an empty office, and when they return to tell you that the office was empty, you shrug and forget that the stamp was ever important. You painstakingly copy their passport information into a computer and make frequent spelling errors, even though the correct spellings are written right in front of you. Then you slowly fix each mistake as the foreigners peer over your shoulder and correct you, silently lamenting that they could do the same task themselves in just a few minutes. When you have finished entering the information, you demand that the foreigners produce six passport-sized photographs, more than they have ever needed for anything in their home countries. The foreigners may tell you that they already needed a passport photograph to get an Indian SIM card and that they are beginning to wonder if anything in India can be accomplished without this small square image. But if you are an Indian bureaucrat, you do not care about these concerns. You just want the photos.

Throughout the process, you interrogate the foreigners about their reasons for coming to India. You may be concerned that they are Pakistani terrorists, even though they clearly have no connection to any entity that wishes India harm. Still, you plan to visit the address they have provided to confirm that they are in fact living in Jodhpur.  When you show up several days later, you are dismayed to find that the foreigners are not home. You are apparently surprised that people who have come to your country on employment visas would spend the day at work. You leave a message instructing them to remain at home the following Sunday, when you will visit at an undetermined time. You do not acknowledge that this basically amounts to house arrest. Then, when Sunday arrives, you call the foreigners to cancel your visit, and you ask if they can get your brother a job at their NGO, leading the foreigners to suspect this request was your only reason for visiting at all.

The Rajasthan High Court

The Rajasthan High Court

If you are an Indian bureaucrat, you are no stranger to corruption. In 2011, you most likely contributed to your country’s embarrassing world ranking of 95th in perceived transparency, as determined by Transparency International. Or maybe you work for the police, and you helped inspire 88% of people to judge your sector corrupt in a 2005 poll by that same organization. You may even have received money from one of the eight in ten respondents who dealt with your department and paid a bribe. Even in rural areas, among the poorest of the poor, you often siphon money into your own pockets. Maybe you administer the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which assures 100 days of paid work to any rural laborer. Your initiative costs over 400 billion rupees ($8 billion) per year but more than half of the projects you have undertaken since 2006 remain uncompleted. By some estimates, two thirds of your funds do not get where they need to go. They probably go to you.

When an American blogger deals with your ridiculous and wasteful system, he considers the raging debate in his own country about the size of government. You show him the worst elements of big government, and you convince him that the Tea Party isn’t quite as crazy as he once thought. You make him more wary of government spending. But you also make him glad that at most levels, his government institutions work. You make him glad that he has never been so frustrated working with his own government, even at the DMV. If you are an Indian bureaucrat, you get a confounded foreigner to appreciate that his home country has very few people like you.

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Impressions of Rural Rajasthan

When I first saw the Thar Desert, it struck me as remarkably green. A few sand dunes popped up here and there, but they were often covered in shrubs and scraggly trees. Most of the landscape consisted of neatly tilled farmland and grassy expanses known as dhanis, with huts and homesteads scattered throughout.

Where were the vast dune seas and the long camel trains trekking under a blazing sun? I had expected Lawrence of Arabia, not How Green Was My Valley.

I should have known better. The Thar Desert is the most densely populated desert ecosystem in the world, home to over 23 million people. It’s harsh and unforgiving but hardly a desert wilderness. The human communities of the Thar are what brought me to Rajasthan in the first place. Even though I work mostly in an office in the city, my ultimate aim is to better the lives of the rural poor.

Children in a barren section of the Thar

GRAVIS, the organization I work for, is a Rajasthani NGO that takes an integrated, participatory approach to rural development. Its full name, Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti, is Hindi for “The People’s Center for the Science of Rural Development.”

At the organization’s core are two principles originally developed by Mohandas Gandhi, India’s most renowned thinker and social activist. The first is Sarvodaya, or “all rising, but the last person first.” GRAVIS focuses its efforts on those who need them most, regardless of gender, age, religion, or caste, and it emphasizes cooperation in a highly divided society. The second core principle is Gram Swaraj, or “village self-rule.” Rather than simply distributing aid, GRAVIS strives to empower rural communities, giving them the tools to build independence.

The people of the Thar face numerous, interrelated challenges, so GRAVIS’ initiatives must be similarly diverse. The organization works on projects relating to water security, agriculture, health, education, mineworker’s rights, and more.

Women draw water from a naadi (village pond) renovated by GRAVIS

A taanka (underground water storage tank) collects rainwater from the surrounding area and holds it for future use

Fetching water

Since my initial surprise at the prevalence of life in the Thar, I’ve learned a lot about the desert and its inhabitants. On my most recent field visit, I tagged along with one of the GRAVIS’ founders and most respected leaders, a woman named Shashi Tyagi. Reverently referred to as Shashi ji, she started the organization in 1983 with her late husband L.C. Tyagi. She continues to maintain an active role, serving as Secretary of the Board and involving herself in many different projects. Her son, Dr. Prakash Tyagi, is the current director of GRAVIS and also my supervisor and occasional physician.  He was the one who suggested I should join for the field visit.

Shashi ji was headed to Jaisalmer, a city in the heart of the Thar Desert, to conduct a workshop on health. On the way, we stopped at a small village health clinic that had gone days without electricity or running water. The nurse who ran the clinic was supposed to be supplying pre-natal care, vaccinations, and tuberculosis treatment, but the lack of basic utilities made her job almost impossible. Shashi ji encouraged the village health committee to appeal to local officials, who have a responsibility to provide the missing services, but who knows if or when they’ll fulfill that obligation.

This clinic was unable to provide many treatments due to lack of electricity and running water

From the health clinic, we continued toward Jaisalmer. The journey took almost five hours in total, but it passed quickly. Long desert drives are one of my favorite parts of visiting the field.

Despite pervasive poverty, the Thar conveys a unique and mystical beauty. Peacocks perch on fence posts, dangling their impossibly long tail feathers toward the ground; illuminated in the sunlight, their necks project an iridescent shade of indigo, and the fragile crests on their heads form shimmering crowns. Stalwart cows graze between khejri trees and wander casually onto the highway, where they lie down to rest. In the village of Khichan, and only in the village of Khichan, flocks of migratory cranes gather in fields flooded from the recent rain. Their elegant black bodies stand out starkly against the still water. As evening draws near, the sun glows a perfect red circle before disappearing beyond distant hills. Trees and rocks turn to shadows against the dusk, and from the encroaching darkness, camels materialize in oncoming headlights. From behind, their tall, thin figures resemble lanky villagers, but soon the jutted humps and curved necks are unmistakable. More camels, cows, and cars briefly appear and vanish, until finally, long after nightfall, the lights of Jaisalmer glisten on the horizon.

A herd of camels crosses the road

The GRAVIS workshop, held in Hindi, was mostly unintelligible to me, but I understood that it was about challenges in the medical treatment of mothers, infants, and people with tuberculosis. The same sort of challenges I had seen at the village health clinic.

From the roof of the workshop venue, I could see Jaisalmer Fort, its sweeping sandstone curves overlooking an expanse of desert. Unlike other forts in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer Fort contains its own miniature city, with shops, restaurants, and hotels lining a compact maze of streets.

Jaisalmer Fort

I got a chance to visit the fort after the workshop, along with another of Jaisalmer’s most famous attractions, the Sam Sand Dunes. Of all the places I’ve seen in the Thar, the Sam Dunes most closely fit the desert stereotype I’d imagined—bare mounds of sand traversed by riders on camelback. But instead a sprawling ocean of sandy waste, the Sam Dunes barely constituted a puddle. From any point, I could see the full extent of their area, and walking the perimeter would have taken less than an hour. As the boy trying to sell me a camel ride kept saying, a quick camel could make the “big round” in twenty minutes flat.

However, anyone traveling by camelback wasn’t doing it for reasons of efficiency. All the camel riders were either tourists or people clamoring to sell camel rides to tourists. The white-robed nomads trekking under a blazing sun were nowhere to be found, and in their absence, camel safaris seemed nothing more than glorified pony rides. I’ll still go on one at some point, but my romantic vision of the desert has been forever shattered.

While the Thar lacks conventional desert scenery, it offers other, more subtle charms. Rather than a movie set, it’s a real place with real people facing real problems. Over the coming months, I’ll continue to unravel its alluring complexity, and that’s far more exciting than a glorified pony ride around a puddle of dunes.

This image presents a radically misleading impression of the Thar Desert.

Lizard footprints


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