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Born to Rann

Weaned on a harsh land, the Kutchi community firmly believes that self-help is the best help

Born to Rann
Born to Rann
From a peninsula bordered by the forbidding Rann of Kutch and the tidal marshes of the Arabian Sea has emerged an indomitable spirit. "The historical memory of the people of the Kutch," says Digant Oza, editor of the Ahmedabad-based magazine Jalseva, "is one of calamity." Kutch has been regularly ravaged by earthquake, famine and drought. Yet it has produced a hardy and courageous people, today one of the world's most successful mercantile and business communities. Migrant Kutchis are a global tribe of diasporic entrepreneurs, settled in countries from Canada to east Africa. Memon and Khoja, Lodaya and Lohana are the names of some of the trading castes of Kutchi descent. "A harsh land has created a tough people," says academic D.L. Sheth. "They are out-migrating and outward-looking. Kutchis are people of enterprise and forbearance." Some sources say that the intrepid sailor who brought Vasco Da Gama across the Arabian Sea was not a European but a skilled navigator from Kutch.

Witness the spirit of the Kutch. Within 48 hours of the quake, Kutchis in London had gathered together and collected as much as £200,000 and promises of much more. From a small apartment in Borivili, Mumbai, a website leapt into cyberspace. Panjokutch.com flashed out messages to the global brotherhood, calling them to rush to the rescue. In Ghatkopar and Mulund—Mumbai suburbs with a high concentration of Kutchis—families packed supplies of theplas and mamra into tiffins, jumped into jeeps and raced towards their abandoned homeland. On the highway between Mumbai and Bhuj, you heard the cry: 'Chaalo Kutch!' In the basement of the three-storeyed Kutchi Jain Samaj building in Ahmedabad, housewives poured in to prepare food packs. "The land gives us nothing," says H.K. Shah of the Kutchi Jain Sevak Samaj. "We're surrounded by desert, the water is not drinkable, the rain is minimal, there are no employment opportunities, not much crop. And so there's a zeal to cross the seas. But there is also a craving for identity. However far a Kutchi travels, half his mind is on those left behind as he knows god is not kind to them. He knows they are starving and suffering."

Among those left behind in the Kutch are nomadic cattle breeders like the Rabaris and Ahir cowherds. Scheduled castes like the Meghwals and Kolis continue to be poor and exploited. Salt pan workers are mostly Kolis and still function in conditions of semi-bondage. In his book Kachch: The Last Frontier, T.S. Randhawa has documented the innumerable folk shrines, dargahs, maths and sthans where local Kutchis pray and gather. Randhawa calls the Kutch "an ethnic cauldron". Land routes to Sindh, Baluchistan and Persia and coastal trading with Africa has created communities with similarities to even some African nomads. In the 19th century, the government of Zanzibar was almost entirely Kutchi.

Local deities are often pluralist: Murad Shah of Bokhara is patron saint of all Kutchi seafarers. Fairs at Haji Pir are attended by Hindus and Muslims. Mekan Dada, saviour of the nomads, is worshipped by all wanderers. In a barren and colourless landscape, Kutchi artisans have created a rainbow array of crafts. Tie and dye is famous in Bhuj, as is the characteristic mirrorwork embroidery of the Rabaris.

nasscom chief Dewang Mehta's mother's forefathers came from Kutch and he has many friends among the garment craftsmen of Bhuj. "There's no colour in the lives of the villagers of Kutch," Mehta says, "and so they work hard to create colour in clothes and jewels." Mehta plans to organise a Kutchi heritage presentation in Mumbai next month as a fund-raiser for the earthquake. He points out that all the flights from the Gulf are full of Kutchi families coming back to look at their villages. "Every Kutchi maintains a home, a farm and a phone in his native village," Mehta says, "because the attachment to the village is so live and strong."

Achyut Yagnik, scholar and activist, says above all, Kutchis are brought up to rely on themselves. The Gandhidham Chamber of Commerce has asked for only two items from the Centre: a soft loan and a tax holiday. "The rest," says Oza, "they will do themselves." Ashok Sharma, settled in the Kutch for many years, was about to open a five-star resort when the earthquake struck. He lost Rs 5.5 crore. But all Sharma wants now is a loan.

Kutch is a money order economy. It is one of the few areas in India where the credit-debit ratio in banks is heavily in favour of credit. In Madhapar, the village bank has over Rs 7 crore in deposits. The huge retail grain trade in Mumbai is dominated almost wholly by Kutchis. Several transporters and timber merchants are also of Kutch descent. Retail outlets and firms like Sheetal, Benzer, Amarsons, Rupam, Anchor and Shemaroo are also owned by Kutchis. Garments in Mumbai and carpentry and craftsmanship in the Gulf are important spheres of Kutchi activity. "The people of the Kutch are too stubborn to take food that is thrown at them," says Shah. "They simply won't take it. After the quake, we had to approach them and find what they really needed. We had to give them utensil kits for the kitchen so they could prepare their own food."

Arvind Lodaya is a product designer based in Ahmedabad. He says he is proud to be a Kutchi but is saddened that many Kutchis are now changing their surnames and seeking to merge their identities with the Gujarati. Lodaya says Kutch society is highly subdivided and caste discrimination and internal differences remain oppressive. Many Kutchis are becoming victims of 'Hindu consolidation' and losing the pluralist distinctiveness of the Kutch. The Kutchi language, Lodaya says, is more similar to Sindhi than it is to Gujarati. But as no one is really trying to go back to the distinctive ways of the Kutch, Gujarati-ness might soon overwhelm Kutchi-ness.

But Shah says as long as the Kutchi language stays vibrant, Kutchis will be proud of their identity. And how to best define their spirit? Shah relates an incident. After the quake, teams of Kutchis from Pune landed in Bhuj and went to the tents of survivors. "We've come to help you," they said. "We know," said the survivors, "but first sit, have some tea. Our house is broken, but you're our guest."

With deserts to the north and east, and a sea on the west, 35 droughts in the last 53 years and two major cyclones in recent years, the Kutch peninsula has given birth to an energetic and no-nonsense people, determined to love the calamitous land that drove them away.
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