The mental picture one has of the old route from Agra via Fatehpur Sikri—a single-lane, tree-lined country road, with bhaaluwaalas and their emaciated sloth bears—seems so last century. A toll highway stares at you now, a smooth ribbon of asphalt, featureless except for Akbar’s city walls that whiz past. The dancing bears have gone to the safe confines of a rescue centre. Their keepers were the dirt-poor Kalandars—an intriguing element in the caste matrix, non-Ashraf Muslims, they break bread only with Dalits like Doms and Dhangars. They have either been reskilled or have vanished back into the surrounding ruralia as lowly sharecroppers and daily-wagers. The local MLA is from the BSP and a Thakur by caste—a sign that old social hierarchies have found a way of coexisting with the politics of empowerment in this southwestern corner of Uttar Pradesh. Highways may change shape, but real change comes only at the pace of a bullock cart in rural India.
Across the border in Rajasthan, just down the street from the Bharatpur sanctuary, a waiter at an upscale restaurant is pretty thrilled with the straws in the wind. “This time she will be back,” he says, beaming. He’s talking about Mayawati and her chances at the upcoming UP elections—it’s an assessment many people voice on the ground. Why would he be interested? Two reasons. Bharatpur may be in Rajasthan, but Jaipur is nearly 200 km away, and a mere 20 km or so on two sides looms UP. “We are closer to Braj culturally—all of us go for the 84-kos parikrama to Govardhan-Mathura.” Secondly, and this cuts closer to the bone, he is from the “same samudaay (caste)”. It’s a rueful predicament for people like him. Dalits down the highway at least have the BSP; no such option is available in Rajasthan. The reservation debate in this district, in fact, centres around the dominant Jats, who were denied OBC status because the Bharatpur royals were from that caste.