A day at the races

Print edition : March 09, 2007

At the carnival at Delanwadi, Vidarbha, bullock cart races are the centrepiece.

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY P. SAINATH

The race is on. Spectators are everywhere. Some of them cross the tracks unmindful of the onrushing bulls. The cart racer does not slow down a whit.-

"HA!" he said. "Taking photos, huh? Well, take your photos and give them to Bittu Sehgal in Mumbai." Sehgal is the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine. The drunk had concluded I was taking pictures of cruelty to animals. How this conversation could be going on in Chandrapur, Vidarbha, remains a mystery. Maybe he had worked in Mumbai at some point. Maybe a team from Sanctuary had worked in this forested region in recent times. The man was too incoherent to explain. A little later, he nearly got both of us crippled. After which I did not care to ask him any more questions.

The Shankarpat or carnival at Delanwadi is in full swing. Its centrepiece, of course, is the bullock cart race. Should these be called races or speed trials? The racers do not all take the field at the same time. There is not enough width for that. You cannot have more than two carts making the one-kilometre dash at one go. That is because there are two `tracks' shaped out in the field by use over decades. Mostly, it is one cart, two bullocks, one driver at one time.

A superb rider for a crucial race. Lunging forward to avert a drunk meant this picture was taken within an inch of disaster.-

It is different from other racing scenes as the spectators are everywhere, some of them crossing the rutted tracks with their backs to onrushing bullocks in the middle of a race. But there are no mishaps. The audience yells its lungs out to alert a miscreant who leaps out of the way like a startled stuntman. The cart racer does not slow down a whit. Groups of youth hover dangerously close to the tracks, ostensibly to cheer their heroes on. The less boisterous sections maintain a safe distance, some perched on top of regular carts piled high with straw. That is the dress circle and balcony. Still others potter through the carnival buying goods but break off when the roar of a race beckons them.

A rider at full stretch.-

These are not your everyday bullock carts. As bullock carts go, these are pretty snazzy racers - much smaller, sleeker, relatively lightweight and capable of surprising speed. The racers are all experienced farmers of varying sizes and ages. One is surely close to 60 years old, if not more. But age is no bar. The bar is on racing itself. So there are no official `prizes' though some say token `gifts' are handed out. The racers are in it for the prestige.

They are getting ready as we enter the field. Checking their carts, tending their animals. Some cattle are decked out in finery, but that is for other functions. The racing bullocks are a no-frills lot, pumped up and snorting on the sidelines. Drummers announce the start. Drummers also march back to the start line after a race. The racer's cart returns minus the bullocks, often pulled by his young sons.

A roar goes up and a race cart whizzes by, if bullock carts can whiz. I think this one does. It surprises us with its speed. The racer, one hand grasping a tail like a tiller, the other wielding a stick - more for his own balance at that point than anything else - shoots past. It is hard to say who is in control, man or beast. The audience applauds. A cloud of dust covers our cameras. The drunk makes rude remarks about our incompetence. The `security' team, aiming to clear the track of people, stands in the middle of it, giving us meaningful glances. What about us, they say. So we photograph them too.

The "Dress Circle" and "balcony" seats for optimal, safe viewing.-

Meanwhile, a huge yell alerts us to the fact that the next racer is now metres away and is bearing down on us at some speed. We, security team and all, scatter out of harm's way in panic. We are just in time and the cart speeds past. The rider is at full stretch and is giving it his all. The crowd closes in. The security team rids the tracks of intruders only to stand again in the middle of it, posing for us.

The next race is critical, the racer superb. This is the farmer who is close to 60. Emboldened by the easy attitude of the crowd, I stand up pretty near this time, wanting to get the man's face clear and close. That is when the drunk does his bit. With all the noise on, I fail to notice him hunching down just behind my knees. I take a small step back and nearly fall over the drunk. Lunging forward to avert him means I am millimetres away from the cart and can feel the breath of the animals. And yes, I did see the face of the racer up close, far closer than I had ever wanted to.

A returning cart, minus its bullocks, is heralded by drummers.-

The crowd generously gives everybody a cheer. The drunk looks at me with injured innocence. I look at him with feelings the editor of Frontline will not print. The racer is a puff of dust on the horizon. It takes some moments to sink in: I had come close to being one of the few humans ever run over and killed by a bullock cart. In a race. Even as I had pulled away from the line of the cart, the wheel on my side touched the edge of my canvas shoe. The last two shots were more accidental than intentional.

These are not your everyday bullock carts. As bullock carts go, these are pretty snazzy racers - much smaller, sleeker and relatively lightweight.-

There are a couple of racers who lose control. Apparently, this happens when the stronger of the animals has independent ideas about the route it wants to take and when the rider is unable to quell the rebellion. One swerves off the track and nearly smashes into the straw-piled carts filled with now-alarmed spectators. Another careers off the other track into the crowd and needs help to stop.

When the sun sets and the trinket merchants shut shop, the bullocks are untied and the crowd heads for home. The carnival is over.-

Meanwhile, the vendors, the makeshift stalls, the trinket merchants and the sellers of magic potions do a brisk trade. The racers untie the animals from their carts. The drunk staggers off into the sunset. And we head for the exit with much of the crowd. The carnival is over.

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