September, 30


What to do with an umbrella at the Desert of Kutch

Harry Fisch


It’s a hot day. Waves of heat rise off the desert encampment as I sit on a shaded verandah with my generous host. Dhanraj Malik Prince, son of King Malek Shri Mahomed Mahomed Shabbirkhanji Azizkhanji, is a real personality here. Known for being both friendly and fair, he sits, resolving disputes between his subjects. Next to him, a worker from the salt pans holds an umbrella silently.


We are in the desert of Kutch, India. Near Pakistan.


Dhandrash Malik, “Bapu” or “Excellence” for the rest of us, is the current owner of the camp, as well as an orphanage. Although legally his title has depreciated, in practice he still reigns as prince of a “state” and enjoys the sovereignty over 7 villages. The locals and Rabaris (nomadic tribes) are still asking him to act as a judge, letting him settle problems instead of submitting the cases to official institutions.


I am privileged enough to attend one such hearing on his verandah. We sit, facing the lake – he owns a beautiful lake in the small town of Zainabad – sipping chai (tea) while quietly chatting in English. Two feet to my left, squatting on the floor and playing with the sand, an elderly couple of Rabaris wait silently. They stay there for more than 45 minutes in the same place. We chat about trifling things.


“Bapu,” I ask the prince, “what are these people doing?”


“Waiting,” he says without changing position, staring into space.


“For what?” I ask, this time softer, so as not to come off challenging.


Bapu looks distractedly at the lake. His answer takes an eternity.


“To speak with me,” he says. Silence, and another sip.


“How long will they have to wait for?”


“As long as is needed, if they want me to take care of their problem.”


Time goes on and finally, the prince decides, more as of courtesy to me than out of charity for his subjects, to deal with the matter.  He politely asks my permission and starts his work. The old lady looks about eighty, impeccably dressed in Rabari style. Her husband of the same age, dressed entirely in white. Finally, the hearing ends after ten minutes. The couple leaves respectfully.


I can not stand the curiosity I turn to the prince smiling. “What was the problem?”


“The daughter has left her husband.”


I am stunned. In this part of India a woman does not leave her husband. A dog maybe, even a goat, can leave its master. But not a woman.


“Did she really leave her husband?” I ask, unable to hide the wonder in my face “Just like that?”


Bapu, seeing my face laughs genuinely.


“No, no! She run away with another man.”


Now I’m more relaxed. Everything fits. Everything falls into place. “What do the parents expect from you?”


“They want the woman back to the husband.”




“The new man is asking one “lack” (100,000 rupees) to give her back,” says Bapu seriously.



This is how things are around here. Two thousand euros is roughly the price for a good daughter in law! A huge amount. The problem will be for the lady once the amount is finally paid. Despite my astonishment, I pretend that all this is normal to me. If a prince, educated in England, shows no discomfort, who am I, a guest and newcomer, to discuss such things.


Shri MOHAMMED SHABBIR Malik (born 1941), married to Riddhi Rani Malik (born 1940)


Shri Malik Jorawar ZAIN KHAN KHAN (1st October 1885-January 1923), succeeded 9th February 1906,