Signs of Life

Folk tales help Rajasthan’s desert communities prepare for famine

A lithographic postcard depicting a poor rural community in early-1900s Rajasthan. Little has changed about the prevalence of hunger in the region since then. Gobindram Oodeyram / Paper Jewe Wikimedia Commons
30 June, 2022

On a dusty morning in Palasani, a village near Jodhpur, 46-year-old Kaburi Mirasi recounted stories her mother told her about the Chhappaniya Akal—the Famine of ’56. The famine occurred in 1899–90, or 2056 in the Bikrami calendar. Kaburi narrated how members of her community of Mirasi Muslims, a historically marginalised caste in Rajasthan, would beg their landlords for spare grain or how water from boiling green pulses was preserved as a source of nourishment. The famine spread through north-western India and, in Rajasthan, brought illness and hunger like never before. “People left their homes forever,” Kaburi told me. “Millions moved away to villages far away in the hope of some work and a meal.”

In Rajasthan, famines are classified into four types: a dearth of water, a dearth of grain, a dearth of fodder and, the most gruesome, trikal, or a lack of all three. A nineteenth-century report about famines in western India noted that “distress came from a ‘famine of wages’ not a ‘famine of grain’” and that the “common peasant” remained impoverished because of their lack of agency over crop and land. So, even as rainfall and floods triggered periods of scarcity, famines were not simply matters of natural intervention. When scarcity arrived, kings did not create irrigation channels, while moneylenders from dominant-caste trading communities further ensnared farmers in debt traps. Little has changed since, causing the community to never forget its traditions of fighting food scarcity.

Kaburi abounds with lists of what can be foraged during famines. “Take the flowers of the aak plant,” she said, picking up a handful of flowers from a small tree which grows wild in Marwar. “In dominant-caste Hindu communities, the flower is auspicious, used in pujas and ceremonies, but, for us, this can be food at a time of need.” In the popular imagination, the khejri tree, a recurring theme in Kaburi’s stories, is associated most often with ker sangri, a dish made with dried berries and beans from the tree, and eaten with hot bajra rotis. “Usually, the barks of trees are harmful, but khejri bark is good for rotis,” Kaburi said. “You scrape it, soak it and then pound it into a flour to make hard rotis on whatever source of fire you have.” As she walked to a khejri tree outside her house, she talked about how it provides shade to a weary traveller and how each part of it is useful during famines. “Tell me,” she said, pointing to the tree, “is there more beauty than this anywhere in the world?”

Like most in Rajasthan, Kaburi’s family depends on a small patch of land and a couple of animals for food. They have to feed the animals, being from a community that is as pastoralist as it is agrarian. “A famine of fodder can be as difficult as one of grain,” she explained. Ruksana Mirasi, Kaburi’s sister-in law, who is in her early fifties, told me, “Without our animals, we cannot eat.”