THE desert holds no surprises. So you land in Jodhpur on a balmy morning and drive through an unkempt town of opulent forts, garbage dumps, faceless low-rise redstone dwellings, ersatz heritage hotels and a National Cadet Corps building "for sale" before hitting the state highway to Pokaran. For the next 168 km, as you drive through the misty scrublands of the Thar, it is sheer tedium. An unending ribbon of tar cuts straight through the great Indian desert. The pale driver struggling with a typically hybrid Ambassador—"Sir, I put a Matador engine inside, but forgot to install the fifth gear"—is also predictable, chugging away at 60 kmph throughout. Pencil-thin, bedraggled women breaking stones dot the bleak wasteland, and an odd-tourist pulls up at another 'heritage' motel—every redstone dwelling for the affluent is 'heritage' in this part of the world. Weary-looking dogs look vacantly at the sparse traffic on the highway every few miles, and a black buck sprints into the nothingness. Then there's a hint of some excitement. A faded board dangling from a telephone pole promises us the Hotel Pokaran—'the jewel of Thar'.
Hardly. You enter this dusty town of 25,000 people past a surreal and gigantic roofless gas station with two dispensers and two snoozing attendants and wind your way past an 83-year-old sooty madrasa, two dozen public telephone kiosks, yet another redstone 'heritage' fort-hotel and the 'Bajrang hairdresser' to reach the marketplace. There are shops selling everything and a poster inside a gaudy studio warns 'Observe good manners'. Around dayfall when the muezzin's call from the bazaar mosque soars into the ochre-hued evening sky, somnolent Pokaran somewhat stirs to life.
It's not that this sprawling sub-division of 150,000 people scattered in 215 sandy villages doesn't stir to life at all. It has stirred to life very famously in the past. Twice, in fact. Twenty-six years ago, Indira Gandhi exploded the first Indian Bomb in the desert and the Buddha smiled. Two years ago, on a scorching May afternoon, Atal Behari Vajpayee exploded three nuclear devices and the Hindus smiled. But the Hindus—and Muslims—in Pokaran couldn't care less. They didn't care much in 1974 and they did not this time around. This year they were more bothered by the drought—a third of the villages have no water, and most of them have no fodder for their livestock. "The atom bombs have burnt our skies," a villager told a visiting hack a few months ago. It could be a piece of apocrypha too.
For, Pokaran sleeps easily with the bomb. Its residents are blase about it. So when army trucks rolled into Khetolai, a dusty hamlet just 15 km from the blast site, that May afternoon and asked the residents to evacuate, nobody minded.
Two hours later, remembers Ram Karan, there was "a big sound, the earth started moving and there was a lot of gas in the air". Then life went back to normal. Oh yes, the explosion did crack some of the homes, and the government doled out Rs 15 lakh to the village to fix them—till the next explosion. It was different in 1974, says Karan, a shopowner. "The ground shook and then mothers gave birth to disabled children." But this time, he hasn't heard of disabled children, "maybe a few disabled calves". Small mercies.
Forty km outside the barricaded scrublands where the blasts took place, there is a field firing range. Armymen play war games here, beyond which are the explosion pits. It's games without frontiers, war without tears. "In Pokaran," says Vikas Ratnu, a political science undergraduate who works as a carpenter and as a telephone booth operator in his spare time, "all talent is buried underground."
So where's the faith and the patriotism and the pride that is Pokaran's own for helping make run-down India a nuclear power? There's no sign of it in the 450-year-old local redstone fort whose 17 humongously boring rooms have been turned into Rs 1,000-a-night lodgings and where wiry, turbaned watchmen sell sad-looking Rs 20 tickets to those who want to have a bird's eye-view of the town: restless calves darting down the street, pigs ambling in the bazaar, smoke-belching autorickshaws dressed up in kitsch art moving slowly and an untidy crossword puzzle maze of whitewashed stone homes. There's no evidence of it at the Ramdeora temple, some 12 km from the town where more than a million devotees—"mostly scheduled caste and tribe ones", whispers an official—throng during a festival in September. The shocking-red-shamiana-covered Raj Photo Studio—it demands "full payment advance"—stands next door to the temple and snares devotees to pose inside, before and on top of an array of tacky cutouts—an orange heart screaming Dil to pagal hai (My heart is mad) and another one of a motorcycle with 'Bofors' written prominently on the sides are the big favourites.
But there is, at least, some life here: mangy dogs follow devotees who follow beggars with alms; a raunchy, excited voice belts out Pyar aa gaya hai, pyar aa gaya hai (love has arrived, love has arrived!) repeatedly through a crackling sub-woofer in a noisy music shop. But where's the pride and patriotism?
The search ends rather feebly at the quaint railway station of two dozen passengers (during rush hour). Just near the entrance, a signboard reminds us 'Many religions, One Nation, Let us be proud of it'. Near the plastic-strewn tracks, a fading signboard holds up another cliche—The Nation Is On The Move. "Not much happens here and nothing really is Pokaran's own," says Man Mohan Vyas, the genial sub-divisional officer, forlornly.
He's right. The temple is patronised by families from Bikaner and visited by people from Punjab and Gujarat. The bombs are exploded by politicians and scientists from Delhi and Hyderabad. Seductive Jaisalmer is where tourists travel to, bypassing Pokaran. Even Pokhran, the name the world knows it by, is not its own. "It's pretty nondescript, this place," reminds Vyas.
So life goes on without much ado here. A quarter of the people live below the poverty line, only one in every 10 residents has ever gone to school and less than a dozen people live every kilometre in this inhospitable terrain. Average land holdings can go up to 10 acres, but what use wasteland? The unending drought has made transporting water to some villages nearly impossible. Nomadic herders have set up desert enclaves in at least 120 locations in 80 villages which are between 40 and 60 km from the nearest water substation or pump! But in town, people like Babu Khan are more enterprising. He runs a phone booth which also promises 'employamant visas for Saudi Arab, Dubai, Abu Dubai and Qatar' (sic). Visas from Pokaran? "Oh yes, sir," he says. "There are 7,000 people from the town living in the Gulf. They work as farmworkers, drivers, camel racers. Life is good there." In Pokaran, as the callow political science undergraduate said, all talent lies underground.