The Raan of Kutch, in western Gujarat, has been producing salt for over 5,000 years.
Little has changed over the centuries for the laboring Indian salt worker.
In marshland spanning 10,000 square miles relentless rainy season and merciless monsoons flood the marshy Raan of Kutch in the autumn season, until the dry season, when the wind begins to dry the salty water. It is in the dry season, with the harsh sun and the scorching earth of the deserts of Kutch, that the indentured servant laborers from neighboring tribes such as the Koli and the Agariyas, migrate with their families to the Raan of Kutch, to mine the salt in order to pay back their loans to the salt merchants and, hopefully, scrape out a meager income for their families.
Gujarat produces three quarters of India’s salt and one half of India’s salt is mined inland in the Raan of Kutch during the dry season. Tribes from over 100 villages descend upon the Raan during the season, setting up huts for their temporary dwelling, as they labor in the hot sun to work the salt. Amongst these seasonal workers who labor in the saltpan was Badagara, the father of young Sashi and Vishnu. Badagara, like his father before him and his father before him for generation upon generation, had mined the salt in the Raan of Kutch. The toll the work took upon Badagara and his beloved wife Aparna, was brutal.
The extreme sun and the caustic salt each created a corrosive and erosive effect on the health of the migrant salt workers. It was usual and prevalent for the workers to suffer from blindness, skin abrasions, cholera and an early death. Aparna was already in poor health after giving birth to her son Sashi. When pregnant with her second son Vishnu, it was clear to the tearful Badagara and Aparna’s sister Saraswati, that the frail and fragile Aparna would not make it through the pregnancy and would die in childbirth.
After Badagara shared a few solitary moments with his bedridden wife, he left the room and beckoned his wife’s sister Saraswati to visit with Aparna. Although Aparna was weak and about to die and her face was sallow with the shadow of death, Aparna’s eyes glowed fiercely like the hot sun of the Kutch desert as she looked intently at her beloved sister Saraswati and she spoke with a quiet conviction that seemed more divine than human:
“Saraswati, I leave the destiny of my sons Sashi and Vishnu in your able hands. I know you love them as I love them.”
Saraswati felt helpless as she looked vacantly at her little sister Aparna’s whitening visage, as her bright burning eyes grew tired and heavy laden, and as the life began to drain away from her. Suddenly, as if in a moment of divine inspiration, as if an electric current had momentarily surged into her being, Aparna’s eyes popped wide open one last time and she said in a voice already resigned toward her fate and with a gentle and calming grace:
“Saraswati, this baby boy Vishnu who is in my belly will do for us what we Indians have always wished for – he will make peace with the British – he will sit down with the British and reason with them and he will forgive them for their cruelty.”
Saraswati wept helplessly as her beloved sister passed her last breath.
Badagara carried the heavy load of his broken heart like a big bag of stones for ten years after the death of his beloved Aparna, until Badagara’s own heart collapsed with exhaustion and he died in the merciless noonday sun of the desert of Kutch, while trekking the long trek from his small village in Kathiawar in the state of Gujarat, to the salt pans of the Raan of Kutch.
During the five years that Badagara outlived his beloved Aparna, he thought of little else than how he might break the karmic cycle that had kept generations of his family in bondage to slave labor in the salt pans of Kutch. He prayed daily for the welfare of his sons, Sashi and Vishnu, wanting for them to lead a better life than him, and searching vigorously, within his meager means, to find a solution that would lift his sons out of bondage.
Already, his older son Sashi, who was now fourteen, was laboring with him in the salt pans, as many children did, some starting as young as eight years old. Badagara was feeling the financial pressure of having his older son Vishnu, who was now nine years old, to join him and Sashi in the salt mines. It pained Badagara’s soul to think of the harsh life in store for his sons.
Badagara had heard from a distant relative who had migrated to British East Africa and started a grocery store there, in the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa.
The relative said he would like a young fellow to apprentice with him in the business.
The relative had offered to pay the young man’s passage on a cargo ship from Bombay to Mombasa, as well as the train ticket from Gujarat to Bombay. The young apprentice’s wages would be tithed to the train ticket and sea voyage expenses and he could then work to pay off this debt before he would receive his own income. The young apprentice could live above the grocery store, in the stock room.
It was the opportunity that Badagara had been waiting for and he wrote back to the relative in Africa offering his own son Sashi as the future apprentice to work in the Mombasa grocery store. It took a full two years more until the relative could save the money to prepay Sashi’s train ticket and sea voyage.
A year before Badagara could finally witness his son Sashi become free of the bondage of working in the salt mines, Badagara passed away. With several of the salt laborers, Sashi and Vishnu, as pallbearers, carried their father Badagara’s body, covered and wrapped in a cotton sheet, from the desert of Kutch where their father had died, to their village in Kathiawar.
On this day, on the mournful day of Badagara’s funeral, young Sashi and Vishnu, their aunty Saraswati, as well as local villagers that included salt miners who had worked alongside Badagara, stood silently as Badagara’s body burned upon the blazing funeral pyre. As every salt miner in Gujarat knew, the body of a salt worker during cremation burns unevenly, and the hands and feet often remain while the rest of the body turns to ashes.
The salt worker’s hands and feet, after years of exposure to briny water and crystallized salt fields, become naturally preserved against the funeral flames and leave eerie bodily symbols of the salt miner’s legacy as a unit of production whose hands and feet were essential tools as part of a vast industrial enterprise of salt production, while their hearts and their minds became increasingly unnecessary and therefore dispensable.
This was probably why the Brahmin priest overseeing the cremation ceremony of Badagara, made a point of saying to the young boys, Sashi and Vishnu, that their fathers heart was always with their mother Aparna, and that their father’s mind was always focused upon how his two sons might be freed from the bondage of generations of salt workers in the Raan of Kutch.
The Brahmin priest then walked over to the smoldering funeral pyre and doused the remaining flames with water from the Indian Ocean and then he gathered the ashes of Badagara in a old brass urn that had been used hundreds of times before, to gather the cremation ashes of hundreds of deceased salt workers over many years. The priest then handed the brass urn containing Badagara’s cremation ashes to the elder son, Sashi.
Sashi and his aunty Saraswati and his younger brother Vishnu, walked over to the silent shores of the Gulf of Kutch, which washed into the magnificent Indian Ocean, and then Sashi scattered Badagara’s cremation ashes on their journey to the vast Indian Ocean.
By the age of fifteen years old, young Vishnu had become a very angry young man and his aunty Saraswati was beside herself trying to calm the fierce and fiery Vishnu, who was as combustible as he was intelligent.
“You will burst into flames Vishnu with your blood always so hot!” exclaimed aunty Saraswati with alarm when Vishnu lost his temper.
Saraswati knew that Vishnu’s energy and intelligence needed to be channeled and harnessed lest it consume him. She also had a heart full of compassion for her beloved nephew, who, even in terms of the harsh and often tragic circumstances of the children of Kathiawari salt workers in Gujarat, had more than his fair share of misfortune.
Vishnu had never known his mother, Aparna, who had died in childbirth.
His father Badagara, who died a decade later when Vishnu was only ten years old, had died of a heavy and broken heart. Added to this was the departure of his beloved older brother Sashi to Africa a year after Badagara passed away, when Sashi turned sixteen, to apprentice at a grocery store in Kenya and thus break the cycle of bondage from working in the salt pans.
Vishnu wished he could have joined Sashi on the adventure to Kenya but he was only eleven years old when Sashi departed and there was only room for one passage and one job in Mombasa, where Sashi now lived. Sashi had made arrangements for young Vishnu to have a similar opportunity to migrate to Dar es Salaam on the east coast of Tanganyika, but it would take at least two more years for the money to be saved in order that Vishnu’s own voyage to Africa would be made possible. In the meantime, Vishnu was still working in the salt mines, and living during the rest of the season in Kathiawar with his aunty Saraswati.
Although Vishnu did not attend school, as with all the children of the salt workers, he had taught himself how to read and write, spending long hours pouring over books that he had managed to scavenge in the village. He was also insatiably curious and would do his best to attach himself to the handful of semiliterate and learned people in Kathiawar, such as the Brahmin priest who conducted the cremation ceremony for Vishnu’s father Badagara.
The more Vishnu read and the more Vishnu conversed with the learned Brahmins, the more he understood about the economy of Gujarat and the place of the exploited salt worker within the context of The British Empire and the more his blood boiled hot with resentment and the more his aunty Saraswati prayed to Lord Krishna to calm her nephew’s wrath at The British Empire, concerned that her firebrand Vishnu might burst into flames.
Until the arrival of the British, salt was regularly available in India and the Indian salt workers in Gujarat had a substantially better life and livelihood.
That all began to change when in 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to the Honorable East India Company, to exploit the salt mines in India, in areas such as the Raan of Kutch in Gujarat. Salt was becoming a profitable commodity on the high seas as The British Empire began to contrive trade barriers to contain and control the trade of salt, and furthermore, to heavily tax the salt production while at the same time imposing indebtedness and slave labor on salt workers such as Vishnu’s father Badagara.
As Vishnu began to grasp the deviousness and deceit of the Honorable East India Company and The British Empire, and as Vishnu began to uncover the intricate layers and veils of lies and fraudulence that enabled the British Raj to enjoy luxury and power, while exploiting to death the Indian laborer, subjecting him to serfdom while growing profitable indigo in the fields of Champaran in Bihar, and mining salt in the Raan of Kutch in Gujarat, Vishnu slept less and ranted more and aunty Saraswati grew more anxious.
Vishnu’s unforgiving heart throbbed no longer with healthy blood but with the poisonous and vitriolic venom that his hateful anger had now alchemized after Vishnu had learned of the ruthless exploitation of The British Empire.
Viceroy of India, The Honorable Lord Curzon, George Nathaniel Curzon, First Marquess Curzon of Keddleston, KG, GCSI, GCIE, PC, was on a state visit to Gujarat.
Salt mine laborers and their families, and thousand of local villagers at the firm encouragement of the Imperial Indian Military Police, stood within the roped barrier on either side of the festive Government Road, in the hot and unrelenting British Indian sun, as they patiently awaited the arrival of Lord Curzon’s colorful processional entourage of the Indian Cavalry Horse Brigade and the Ceremonial Indian Elephant Brigade, and the Imperial English Brass Band, not to mention Scottish Bagpipers, all of them in all their prideful pomp and circumstance, to grace their presence.
The day before Lord Curzon’s state visit to Gujarat, young Vishnu had an angry altercation with two members of the Imperial Indian Military Police.
The two Indian policeman had arrived on horseback to the district in the village of Kathiawar where Vishnu and his aunty Saraswati lived in a tiny ramshackle dwelling alongside hundreds of similar dwellings with hundred of other families who relied on salt worker livelihoods.
The two Indian policeman dismounted their horses and pounded their billysticks (truncheons) on the doors of several dwellings, asking them occupants to round up every villager and inform them that they were expected at the procession the next day, of his Highness the Honorable Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India.
The men villagers were expected to dress in pure white and iron pressed dhoti and the village women in clean saris.
Young Vishnu, unafraid and reckless, his blood hot with outrage, marched straight over to the two policemen after they had made their announcement and were ready to mount their horses and ride to the next village.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves – you are Indian – like me!” shouted Vishnu at the Indian two policemen, “Why are you selling your souls to Lord Curzon and The British Empire?”
One of the Indian policemen walked over to Vishnu wielding his truncheon. Vishnu stood firm and still and looked the policeman directly in the eye:
“Puppet Policeman of The British Empire! Shame on you!”
The policeman hit Vishnu hard on his shoulder with his billystick and cracked Vishnu’s shoulder bone in half as Vishnu fell to the dirt ground writhing in pain, and still persisting in calling the policemen a ‘puppet’.
By now, aunty Saraswati who had been informed of the impending altercation, had rushed over to the scene and began pleading profusely to the two Indian policeman to placate their threat of putting Vishnu in jail. She promised them that she and Vishnu would be at Lord Curzon’s procession the next day and the two policeman reminded aunty Saraswati that she had better make good on her promise because they had paid informants in her village who would alert them if she broke her promise.
The two Indian policemen mounted their horses and left the Kathiawari village and aunty Saraswati helped support the hobbling Vishnu back to their dwelling where she tended to his wound and bandaged him up.
The imperial carriage, resplendent and ornamental in bright gold and rich maroon colors, carried the uniformed and abundantly be-medaled Lord Curzon, and the fashionably dressed and splendidly bejeweled Lady Curzon, fueled by four majestic and decorated white stallions and surrounded by a vast entourage of British Indian Army captains and lieutenants and subalterns and Indian British Army foot soldiers and infantrymen.
Strewn lavishly at the feet of Lord and Lady Curzon as they were both seated in the imperial carriage, were the beautiful shiny pelts of the tiger skins that were recently acquired by Lord Curzon when he went tiger shooting with the Maharaja of Baroda.
The united bands of the Imperial English Brass Band and the Scottish Bagpipers were proudly playing God Save The Queen and the salt miner families, encouraged by the patrolling Imperial Indian Military Police, who marched up and down the rope enclosure where the salt mining families had been relegated and designated. It was all very orderly with a contrived if not eerie air of friendliness and forced smiles and performed expressions.
Lest it remain unclear to any of the Indian villagers who might be in charge of India, an abundant number of the Indian foot soldiers held high a banner, with the royal photograph, recognizable on every postage stamp, of Her Royal Highness Queen Victoria, Empress of India.
Vishnu and his aunty Saraswati stood anonymous in the crowd, leaning in the front lines of the designated area, against the white rope of that defined their boundary, and witnessed the procession. The highly intelligent and now self-taught literate Vishnu, had been reading about Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor General of India, in the local Gujarati newspaper features leading up to this grand event.
Vishnu had learned much about Curzon.
He had learned that George Nathaniel Curzon was the eldest son of the eleven children sired by Alfred Curzon, the Fourth Baron Scarsdale, Rector of Kedleston and was born at Kedleston Hall, which was situated on the site where his family, who were of Norman ancestry, had lived since the twelfth century. The pedigreed Curzon had been educated at Eton and then Baliol College, Oxford.
While at Oxford, Curzon had been President of the Oxford Union and had developed a love of oratory and debate. Also while at Oxford, Curzon became the subject of the tradition of the Baliol College Rhyme, which made reference to his fondness of dining at Blenheim Palace, the majestic Oxfordshire residence of the Duke of Marlborough and the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill.
The Oxford rhyme dedicated to ‘Little Curzon’ read:
My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink my hair is sleek,
I dine at Blenheim once a week.
Curzon’s powerful connections and impeccable pedigree served him spectacularly, as he rose through the ranks, from Member of Parliament to Under-Secretary of State for India to his current culmination of highest rank in the Indian Civil Service as Viceroy and Governor General of India.
As the imperial carriage approached the full view of Vishnu and his aunty Saraswati, the young and fiery Vishnu’s eyes blazed with hatred at this bloated Britisher, his shiny medals and his killed Bengal tiger at his feet, while his wife’s ears and neck sparkled with the rubies and diamonds looted and stolen from Vishnu’s beloved Mother India.
Lord and Lady Curzon were, of course, completely unaware and oblivious of the rage pounding in young Vishnu’s heart, as they smiled reservedly, upon being thrown fresh golden marigolds and beautiful flower garlands, by the wives and the daughters of the Indian village salt miners.
“They do not see you, Vishnu,” ventured aunty Saraswati to Vishnu, with a tremor in her voice that she was struggling to calm.
“I see them!” exclaimed Vishnu in a wrathful whisper.
“Yes, Vishnu… you see them, but they do not see you. They do not see you and they do not know of the anger you hold for them in your heart. Only you know of that anger, they do not know of it.”
“Aunty, I do not care if they do not know the truth, as long as I know the truth in my heart.”
“Ah, Vishnu…” smiled aunty Saraswati with a calm and a grace gently descending upon her and naturally relaxing her taut and anxious facial expression, “You speak of the ‘truth’. But which truth – the truth that is the rage against The British Empire that burns violently within your heart?”
“Yes, aunty Saraswati, that is the truth I speak of.”
“That is a truth, but it is not The Truth, my beloved Vishnu,” smiled aunty Saraswati in a way that was disarming if not angelic for Vishnu to see.
Vishnu went quiet and the procession of the Curzon carriage had now long passed down the road deep into the distance. Aunty Saraswati gazed into the distant horizon where the Curzon carriage could now faintly be seen and then she turned to Vishnu.
“That Lord Curzon, which you hate with all your heart, Vishnu, he was big in our sight when he was passing close to us and now he is like a tiny dot in the far distance and about to disappear. So it is with your anger, Vishnu. Today it is large and feels like a mighty ‘truth’ but one day, in this life or in the next, or in the next after that, your anger, which is your truth, will pass by and become like a tiny dot and then disappear forever. That is how you know, dear Vishnu that this anger of yours is not the lasting Truth, it is only a passing truth.”
“But… Aunty Saraswati… I mean to say… this anger of mine, it seems like the truth of my being.”
“Yes Vishnu, it appears to be truth, but it is a storm of dust and a cloud of smoke. Remember what Krishna says to brave warrior Arjuna in sacred Bhagavad Gita: ‘All is clouded by desire Arjuna, as a fire by smoke, as a mirror by dust.’ Your everlasting Truth is clouded by this anger, Vishnu.”
“What is the everlasting Truth, Aunty Saraswati?”
“I cannot find love in my soul, Aunty Saraswati, there is too much torment and there is too much wrath and no room for love.”
“Then be the brave warrior that you are, Vishnu, and fight the Great Battle of the Mahabharata, the battle is within… It is within your very own soul. That is where you need to fight and win this battle. You need to overcome this anger either here or hereafter, or you shall never have peace.”
“How do I begin to fight, Aunty Saraswati.”
“By forgiving the cruelty of the British.”
“You must, Vishnu. You must. This poisonous anger is not going to hurt Lord Curzon and it is not going to destroy him. This poisonous anger will only destroy you. And it will prevent you from becoming the great man that you will surely become, if you fight and win this victory of your soul.”
“Aunty Saraswati, once I go to Africa things will be better for me because I will no longer live in the bondage of a salt laborer slave here in India.”
“Bondage travels with you wherever you travel, Vishnu. You will not be released from bondage and slavery simply because you take a train to Bombay and a ship voyage to Dar es Salaam. Wherever you go Vishnu, you carry slavery with you as long as you remain a slave to your soul.”
“I cannot forgive Lord Curzon, Aunty Saraswati. Never!”
Aunty Saraswati looked Vishnu straight in the eyes and for the first time in his life Vishnu understood the great strength and conviction of his aunty.
“Vishnu! You can and you will forgive Lord Curzon and the cruelty of The British Empire. You can and you will forgive. Not for Curzon, not for the British, but for your own self and for the peace of your own soul. We Indians come from an ancient civilization and we know that the greatest battle we can ever fight is victory over our own soul. Lord Curzon is Baali and you, my beloved Vishnu, are Lord Vishnu. You will rise above Baali and you will conquer and claim back the magnificence of your own soul, as Lord Vishnu did, and you will do this through forgiveness. As Lord Krishna said to the brave soldier Arjuna: ‘Let the battle begin, and find within you a generous forgiving heart and never empower your enemy, but see the nothingness of your enemy, and then, with a giant and magnanimous soul, and with an Army of Angels, go forth and Arise great warrior. Arise!”
KARIM AJANIA , January, 2016, All Rights Reserved
Registrant: Karim Ajania
Author: Karim Ajania
The Sadhu of Nairobi
Registration Number: 1822808
FILE NAME: Sadhu-of-Nairobi.docx
EFFECTIVE DATE: 2/1/2016