By Ramya Ravi
Banni, meaning ‘बनी हुई’ or something that is made, is an arid tropical savanna system in the Kutch region of Gujarat. Situated in on the northern fringe of Bhuj Taluka, Banni was the only vast stretch of grassland, constituting a total of 45% of permanent pasture in the region of Kutch and covering 10% of the state of Gujarat. Home to a centuries old pastoral system, Banni’s traditional occupation has been animal husbandry. Banni buffaloes were bred to produce high yields of milk, and the Kankrej cattle to support the local agrarian economy. Today, the Banni pastoralists are an integral part of Gujarat’s milk economy. However, the grassland landscape is under considerable threat with the introduction of Prosopis juliflora by the Forest department in the 1960s. Its subsequent invasion of the grassland is broadly believed to have upset the delicate balance here.
I had decided, back in 2014, that my thesis work would focus on how this invasive ought to be removed from the landscape and restore Banni’s “traditional” way of life. And so, I made my way to the landscape with, what I believed to be, a formidable idea and an open mind for an immersive field experience. I was soon to discover that I neither had an open-mind, nor a formidable idea.
I arrived at Bhuj in February, 2015. Our field station in Banni is about 70 kilometers away by road. The weather was salubrious, not too warm and not too cold. Upon my arrival, accompanied by my colleagues, Ovee and Chetan, we made our way to a well-known hotel for lunch. And that is when I was introduced to Kutchi samosa. In a new place, familiar food offers great comfort, and this delectable Kutchi samosa was solace. I imagined myself sitting in our field station every evening with chai in one hand and Kutchi samosa in the other. Suddenly, an unseen and an unfamiliar place felt like home. I was more eager to start fieldwork and pondered how daily consumption of these samosas would impact my imaginary athletic build. However, with each bite, the taste nudged the worry out of my head.
The first phase of pre-synopsis fieldwork had begun, and as expected the landscape was complicated. Just not the complications I was expecting. For instance: I discovered the word Maldhari itself is an occupation-based term, and not a caste, as I had believed! Then there are twenty-one communities that make up Banni’s social milieu, and not all of them were Maldharis. Perhaps, the most unexpected finding was people’s positive attitude towards P.juliflora. Despite the fact that the invasive now occupies more than half the landscape, with varying density, threatening traditional livelihoods along with native grass species. The attitude seemed to be intricately linked to several economic, social and cultural dependencies of the people. As a result, some people did not want the invasive removed! With each passing day, excitement made way for diffidence, and my carefully crafted research idea seemed divorced from reality. (In hindsight, thank god for pre-synopsis fieldwork!)
Kutchi samosa and the awakening
With great diffidence, comes an even greater need for familiarity. So each evening I would wait with great expectation that maybe today would be the day that Kabul bhai (our cook at the field station, and for all important purposes, our caretaker) would make those Kutchi samosas. But chai-time would come and go, and the samosas were never a part of it. Finally, when I was comfortable enough, I ventured to ask, “Kabul bhai, kya aap aaj Kutchi samosa banaoge?” (will you make some Kutchi samosas?), he says “Woh kya hota hai?!” (what is that?). I begin my explanation while he lights a beedi. He replies in wry tone, “Raamiya ben, woh sab Bhuj mein hi milta hai, agli baar jab jaaoge mere liye bhi le aana, mein bhi khaoonga yeh Kutchi samosa (You will find all this in Bhuj, not here. Next time you go, bring it for me too, I would like a taste).” He then nonchalantly returns to his beedi.
I discovered that Kutchi samosa was so named to make a local snack appear more familiar to the tourist coterie. Bhuj, the district headquarters of Kutch, is a cultural melting pot. From buildings of tremendous historic value to organizations that work on empowering the people of Kutch, from handicrafts to diverse food offering, Bhuj offers a certain urban familiarity. I was thus rudely awakened to the differences between Gujarati, Kutchi, and Saurashtra cuisine.
The Banni inside Banni
The road from Bhuj to Banni is crammed with cordial invitations like “Kutch nahi dekha, to kuch nahi dekha” (if you haven’t seen Kutch, you haven’t seen anything). Which is quite true, it is truly a fascinating landscape! Then there are multiple hoardings about the many resorts that offer the real Kutchi experience- a thali with delicious looking food, camel rides with Rabari-maldharis, picture(s) of traditional huts called bhungas, with the White Rann in the background, and if the hoarding space allows it, Bacchan saab, the ambassador of Gujrat tourism himself. But this is, rather, a manicured version of Banni.
The devastating earthquake of 2001 necessitated large rehabilitation programs that focused on economic and social empowerment. The milk economy and the tourism industry are results of this rebuilding effort. Though, this has changed many lives for the better, there are, both benefits and dis-benefits to these interventions. Like the Maldharis are now known as the “doodhwalas”, or milkmen, of Kutch, contributing to a newer economic identity; an identity that glosses over their unique traditional identity, and their culture.
So, while engagement with the tourism industry may well be a choice, the people of Banni have dichotomous identities – the Banni inside Banni. This is most evident, straight away, in their traditional practices, greetings and food. Predominantly an Islamic society, greetings like “Namaste or kemcho” for an outsider is far more natural than their own greeting “Salaam waleiquum”. In my initial days, I would begin conversations with a “Namaste or kemcho (Gujarati for Namaste)”, responses like “Ben aaya (Sister has come!), or Bas maja maja, tamme (Everything is good, and you)?” would follow and the interview would begin. But, in a few months’ time, this approach felt problematic. As a researcher who was indefatigably seeking to gain an inside track, I could not risk being a seen as a total outsider. At first, I might have felt a little smug about the quality of my interviews, the truth was that I behaved like an outsider, unable to acknowledge the inconsistencies, and reluctant to discard my pre-conceived notions of the landscape.
What were these pre-conceived notions, one may ask? For instance: I had assumed that I needed to learn Gujarati for effective fieldwork. But I was in Kutch, and for the most part my interviews involved resident/non-resident/migrating populations. Only some Banni residents spoke fluent Gujarati, mostly as a result of their constant exposure to transactions with the outside world through tourism, charcoal trade, livestock trade, and so on. Many residents barely ever left their village and migrants from the interiors of Kutch, spoke little to no Gujarati. In fact, the Urdu I thought I knew, by virtue of being a Hyderabadi and with a marginal interest in Urdu literature, felt like alien tongue here. I did not process many of these nuances until after I concluded my pre-synopsis fieldwork. As a result, I did not correct my course of action, until I returned for fieldwork in 2017.
In hindsight, I recognize now that I did not have the open mind at the start of my fieldwork. But since resuming fieldwork last year, I have wiped the slate clean and have made concerted efforts to adjust my attitude towards learning. For instance: I now begin my interviews with a “Salaam-waleiqqum”, to which I will first see eyes widen, and then hear a very warm “Waleiqqum-salaam”. I seek to understand, instead of being understood, and use their lens to understand their world. And no more do I feel afraid to receive answers/thoughts that will upset my proverbial apple cart. I simply ask: do the people want the invasive or do they want the invasive removed?
Until I have the answer, or an explanation, to this last question, how about I describe my experiences with the real Banni cuisine and its tea?
 Maal= Livestock, Dhari= owner of maal.
 Ben, or sister, is a common term of reference for women (except wives) in the landscape, and elsewhere in Gujarat.
About the author:
Ramya Ravi is a PhD student at ATREE. She is currently based out of Banni grassland, Kutch, Gujarat. In Banni, she is studying the socioeconomic impacts of the invasive species, Prosopis juliflora, while also expanding on the ecological narrative of the species from the region. Apart from usual interests in reading, sports and music, she is a tea aficionado and Banni, she says, meets this with zest. For these stories, she is grateful to the many people of Banni who have opened their hearts and home, making possible a rich field experience. And for humour in everyday tough situations, she credits the incredible field assistants at RAMBLE (Habu bhai, Rasool bhai, Kabul bhai, Imran bhai and Khairaj), and her supportive field station mates (Nirav, Ritesh, Chetan and Gargi).