jaisalmer – mr. desert
The Thar Desert. This really is the billion star hotel, with the biggest bedroom and largest bathroom and best view in all of Rajasthan.
We arrived here by camel – strange prehistoric looking creatures yet graceful and feminine with their long eyelashes and fluffy lips permanently curled into what looks like a Mona Lisa smile.
Taru, our guide, sets a blanket down on the soft dunes, still warm from the day’s sun. He tells us to drop our bags, take our shoes off and walk toward “a wery, wery beautiful sunset”. The sand is like gold powder between our toes and the sunset is unlike anything I’ve ever seen – definite and concentrated, like a giant grapefruit falling from the sky. The uninterrupted horizon save for shadows of camels and people on the next dunes over just adds to the magic of it all.
It gets cold quickly in the desert after the sun goes down. Taru brings us hot chai and makes a fire. The first stars are just starting to sparkle in the sky when Anuket, the owner of Sahara Travels, suddenly arrives. He has traveled hours across the dunes to tell us a tale. He said he’d promised to tell us the story of his father and he could think of no better place or time. By campfire, in the desert, under a billion stars. Where his father spent most of his adult life.
Indians are storytellers. No matter how little English they speak, they always seem to have the most elaborate vocabulary and phonetically pleasing singsong accent. There is something about the way they accentuate all their syllables that I find immensely endearing. And it makes for an enchanting story.
They call it Mr. Desert competition. Mr. Desert competition, the person who can run, I can say, who is looking like real desert man. Good height, good personality, good local ornaments, turbans, beard, moustache, right clothes – traditional clothes, not the different clothes. So he participate first time, he won. The title Mr. Desert 1988. It is, I can say, handsome competition. After that, in the 1989, again they have desert festival, he again participate, he again won. Before that, he was driving truck all over in Rajasthan. Think about only one person is earning the money and eight people in their house to eat. So he was like that. Very poor life. But he was very happy. He was very satisfied with everything. But some people they suggest to him that now you are Mr. Desert, you can do something else with the tourists, why you are going to drive truck? At that time he don’t have very big capital to start a new hotel. Even he can’t speak English when he was truck driver but people say you can learn the English, no problem.
So this is how he started. He just set up an office with one table, one chair, few photographs. That’s all. So, I can say, days turns to weeks, weeks turns to months but there is no customer. He was totally disappointed and I can say he was trying to stop the business and going back to truck driving. But fortunately, a few backpackers came, they have big bags, they have big camera, they ask for the photographs. He was just sitting outside his office. They say they want to take photographs in the sunset point with all the costume ornaments. He say yes, OK, no problems. He go there and they take a lot of photographs and they request please Mr. Desert, don’t stop your business until a few more months. He say OK, I already survive 6 months, a few months more I can survive.
So a few days later, he get one letter. “Mr. Desert, now the world’s biggest tobacco company, they called Marlboro, Marlboro launching one new cigarette that will be Jaisalmer cigarette. You will be the brand ambassador for this cigarette so you have to come to Delhi and sign up.“ He went Delhi and he sign up for the 3 years. During the 3 years, he will not go to participate in other tobacco company. It was an agreement.
I can say in the year 1988-89-90-91. Four years continued, he won the competition. Actually, nobody is there to compare. He was the best he was looking. You can see on the photographs in my office. So in the 1991, he receive a letter, “Mr. Desert, now you will be Mr. Desert forever, please stop to participating, they are needing some new people. And you will be judge of the Mr. Desert.”
So, during the, I can say, Marlboro years, the Jaisalmer cigarette poster, they put all over in India, even in the airports. It was very attracting at this time, famous cigarette. So people are watching his face and very attracting. When they come to Jaisalmer, his office is just outside the fort, they have to pass through his office, and they see same person with same photograph. They ask, is this you? Oh! Can we take photograph with you? You are a celebrity. Then they ask, what do you do? He say, no good English but very good camel safari.
So he used to take them here. He was very hard worker. As I told you, he slept in desert more than 300 nights every year. At this time, people they are very happy. The most advertisement was word of mouth. People, they just go out and whenever they meet people, they just tell them: “Are you going to Jaisalmer? Please must do go to Mr. Desert, he is very nice worker.” Like that, people trust, they come.
1989 till 1996, they don’t have name in the Lonely Planet. So first time in 1996, Lonely Planet add them. “There is one office, run by Mr. Desert with good beard and moustache. Don’t forget to take photo with him.” It was written. Everybody come here, come to him, take photographs with him. So that was the U-turn of his life. Just a former truck driver turn to Mr. Desert to celebrity.
During this time period, he did a couple commercials. I can say Coca Cola international in the cricket world cup 1996. He was just sitting outside the fort, hearing the transistor, the commentary, and he have in one hand Coca Cola. Then there was the Master Card. A few documentary, some from India, some from Hollywood. Wanderlust Magazine, they have photograph of my father on cover page. Until that, he is very famous but he is not let business with other employees. He still come to work daily.
So I can say, until last year at this time, 31st of December he was doing very well. Only, I can say, the beginning of this year, we got to know that he have little pain in the mouth. Actually, he told us that it was very big pain. And then doctor told him it is cancer. Ok. So he go to have nice treatment. Then they told me that it was very late. Because he has 4th stage of the cancer. The cells they go down to lungs and the organs. They can’t do anything else.
He lived 6 months. On the 8th of June he pass away. 54 years old. Even when he was on the bed, passing away, he was worried about his business. He was just saying, please keep it up. You have to do it. If somebody is not happy with you, you can say sorry to him. A lot of things he told me at that time.
So now I am here, I’m educated, I can say I have bachelors. Even I am finishing my course. One of the biggest course in India. I am not doing any job now. If I am looking I find good job but now I am here, I can tell the story about my father. People like this story too.
Even all my camel men, they have very nice testament with my father. They trust me. I trust them. All the business is running on the trust. It is very fine for us. They are not working for me. They are working for my father.
“Will you do the Mr. Desert competition then?”, I ask.
He laughs. “Then I will grow my beard. It will take time. I will do it but I can’t compare myself to my father.”
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