That’s something new

When I saw this motorcyclist on the highway from a distance I thought he was carrying balloons. I tried to get shots as we closed in on him. The Young Niece craned her neck around Soni to look, and she was the first to say “They aren’t balloons, they are balls.” Indeed they are, and also buckets, wastebaskets, laundry hampers and other plastic things which you might need in the house. The Family was also involved in this little story by now. “Is he a door-to-door salesman?” she asked. We overtook him as he puttered on behind trucks.

Later, on this highway cutting through Punjab we passed this other man, motorbike loaded with brooms and woven cane baskets. The Young Niece was dozing, and The Family glanced out of the window without making a comment. I thought he was not less interesting than the previous guy. The sights nagged at me until I remembered a sight I’d seen next to a highway in Assam, at the other end of the country. That’s the photograph below: a motorbike laden with packets of food making deliveries to roadside stalls.

All these motorbikes are delivery men, just like the Amazon delivery men on their motorbikes in cities. As rural India becomes more prosperous, a new delivery chain is growing to satisfy the needs of small shops. While big companies and their ancillary services target the prosperous middle class in the compact markets of cities, the far-flung countryside of India is also going through a consumer revolution. Their demands are too small for the giant trucks which ferry goods to cities on the same highways. These motorbikes are part of this new story.

A de Chirico landscape

As we drove through the Thar desert, I was intrigued by villages which seemed half-built and deserted. Often blocks of yellow Jaisalmer sandstone would be piled up at several places, enhancing the impression that the houses in the village were unfinished. Eventually we stopped at one of these. Indeed, as you can see from the photo above, the village looks like a painting by Giorgio de Chirico: surreal empty blocks of buildings, open plazas, blue skies, bright sun, and not a living soul in sight.

The buildings are made entirely of Jaisalmer yellow sandstone mortared together. The stone is common in this region, but not easily seen elsewhere. We found a few buildings which had been left unfinished. Sand had piled up against the boundary wall you see in the photo above. The electrical lines which cut through this empty village marched away to the horizon. Sand had also blown into the unfinished houses, and piled up in great drifts inside.

It was only when a bunch of children came running towards us that we noticed the real village. It was a couple of hundred meters away; a cluster of mud huts. The children gathered around us discussing every move we made in Hindi. There was some controversy about whether we were “English”. I decided to talk about very mundane things with them, in Hindi: like why they were not at school (it was after school hours) and whether they liked math more than Hindi (there was no consensus). After this conversation quietened them down, I asked them to pose for a photo. Only four did, and you can see them in the photo above. After this they decided there was no entertainment left in us, and they ran off. We were left alone in the deserted village, wondering why it came into being when there was a real live village right next to it.

Home, beautiful home

In visits to Odisha in the past we noticed the beautifully hand painted fronts of buildings. A lovely custom is that a marriage is announced by a painting on the front wall of a house with the names of the bride and groom. In the Cuttack-Puri-Bhubaneswar area these are often written in the Roman script and easy for travelers to read.

Poverty has declined by 24.61 percentage points from 57.20 percent in 2004-05 to 32.59 percent in 2011-12. The reduction of poverty by 25.11 percentage points was higher in rural Odisha than that of 20.31 percentage points in urban Odisha.
—Economic Survey of Odisha 2014-15.

We drove far outside this urbanized area on this visit to Odisha. A three hour drive took us to the east, into Kendrapara district. Odisha is one of the poorer states in India, although it has made tremendous progress in the last decade. Rural India has poverty twice as high as urban India, and Odisha is no exception. This was clear even from the windows of a speeding car when we moved out of the urbanized Bhubaneswar-Cuttack area.

Even in this region, the tradition of decorating a home with paintings can be seen. We passed many villages where there were only structures made of mud, but each of these was beautifully decorated with patterns in white. After about half an hour of driving I asked myself why I wasn’t stopping to take photos. So I did, and the result is the featured photo. The lady in the photo was working in a road development gang next to the thatched mud hut where you see her. The decoration is fairly typical.