National Geographic : 2010 Feb
' zzled because of corruption and poor planning. But the nomads' cause was kept alive by human rights groups, and in 2005 the Indian Parliament formed a temporary commission to address their plight. Its chairman, Balkrish- na Renke, was uniquely quali ed for the job: Born into a group of mendicants, he spent his early childhood roaming among villages in western India, literally singing for his supper, before a charity took him in and gave him an education. For Renke the goal is clear. "If they want to have a right of citizenship, education, and par- ticipate in modern progress, they have to settle," he says. Renke is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge. India's creaky but expan- sive social welfare system has long been geared toward redressing the inequities of caste. Be- cause the nomads are dispersed among many castes, they have garnered few of the a rma- tive action bene ts---and none of the political clout---that have accrued to other persecuted groups, such as the Untouchables. " ere is no organization. ere is no awakening," Renke says. " ey are unheard people." in the Lohar's company, I was beginning to understand one reason: ey were not easy to be around. Although I had made clear at the outset that I would not give them money, I tried to remain in their good graces by dispensing small gi s---usually bags of lentils and our---and regularly treating them to chai from a nearby vendor. But for some it was never enough. Kartar, Lallu's older brother, badgered me constantly for kalakand, a kind of milk pud- ding, and sulked when I failed to oblige. His wife, Pooni, was no less insistent. "Give me money for chai!" she said by way of a greeting one morning, and whenever I caught her eye, she plucked at her ragged tunic or signaled her desire for bidis by raising two ngers to her lips. I learned not to catch her eye. Even Lallu, whom Kailashi had pronounced "too shy to beg," was not above hitting me up now and then. "I didn't eat yesterday because my hen died," he told me one a ernoon. "I was very sad." A dog had killed it. I murmured condolences. "A new hen costs 300 rupees." Sympathetic nod. "You pay 100 rupees." Sigh. Still, I couldn't help but admire the Lohar. They were skilled artisans and hard workers and took obvious pride in what they do. One a ernoon a gray-haired woman from the vil- lage came to buy a spoon. "I may charge you a few rupees more, but I make good-quality stu ," Kartar promised. Squatting in the shade of a neem tree, he heated a piece of iron until it glowed, then positioned it on an anvil with tongs while Pooni, her feet planted wide, at- tened it with a sledgehammer. When the metal was thin and malleable, Kartar grabbed a small- er hammer and de ly teased out the shape of the long-handled spoon, pounding its surface to a lustrous, dimpled nish. He led its edges smooth, then handed it to the woman with a ourish and an expression of respect. "Take it, mother," he said, receiving 30 rupees---about 65 cents---in return. The Lohar cared about their craft because they cared about their identity. All but the youngest knew the story of Chittaurgarh, and weeping children were silenced with the ' . A small boy practices with a slithery partner as his parents, members of the Vadi snake- handling community, watch and teach. The Vadi, like many nomadic entertainers, increasingly depend on begging to survive. The show goes on for Mangabhai (bottom), a 63-year-old Nat acrobat who jumps through knife-studded hoops.