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The daughters of the dunes

OPEN JEEPS were cutting their way through the sandy trails of the Thar Desert. Sand, shrub and bushes stretched into the distance, as far as the eye could see. Soon we entered into the enclosures of the Sudasari Desert National Park, about 60 kilometers away from Jaisalmer. The national park is home to the Great Indian Bustards (GIB), one of the critically endangered bird species in India.

Soon after spotting the rare bird, I was introduced to the custodians of ‘Godawan’ (GIB). Two women forest guards are responsible for the well being of the birds as well as other wildlife species in the area.

More unusual than the existence of a surreal place like this was the presence of the two women forest guards in this area, doing an unconventional job in an isolated region of Rajasthan.

Rajasthan is the largest state of India, and is notorious for one of the lowest child sex ratios (888) and female literacy rates (52.66 percent) in the country.

It’s a state which is still crippled by child marriage and female infanticide. Girls’ access to higher education and work opportunities is negligible, especially in rural areas, where most of the girls quit school after Class VIII, irrespective of their caste and class.

Despite the odds, in an extremely remote part of West Rajasthan close to the Pakistan border, I found hope and inspiration in these two women with post graduate degrees, working as forest guards. Everything seemed stuck in time; much like the society surrounding these women.

In the vast desert land, the only protruding structures were the mud-huts and a crumbling office of the wildlife department for the staff and occasional winter visitors. Pushpa and Pushta have very similar first names and are roughly the same age, but their life stories are completely different.

Pushpa Shekhwati, 24, is a widow and a single mother who belongs to a small village called Kasumbi in the Naguar district. The choice to remarry is an unimaginable thought in Rajasthan, where a dominant section of the society still glorifies the ritual of sati. Extreme societal pressure and probable repercussions to their immediate as well as extended families stop women from seeking love and marital bliss a second time in their live.

In June 2014, Pushpa’s husband Virender Pratap Shekhawat met with an accident and lost his life, leaving behind an infant and a young bride. Life came to a standstill for Pushpa. She was still studying in college, dependent on her husband’s support. Despite the unbearable grief of losing her husband, she chose to continue her studies and finished her degree.

Her hard work paid off when she was selected for the job, but a tough decision had to be made: She had to leave her son behind with his grandparents.

As part of her job as forest guard, she lives far away from the city, and due to limited transportation options, it takes her almost two days to get home and meet her son.

On the subject of considering remarriage, Pushpa said she fears her son might not be accepted. “Life is very different from the Rajasthan they show in movies. My parents are not educated, and they are happy that at least I have my son. Having a son is everything here," said Pushpa, as she looked at pictures of her son on her phone screen.

Widows are usually made to go through horrific rituals and are not even allowed to step out of the house. Pushpa seemed rather grateful that her in-laws support her in pursuing this unusual job.

On the other hand, Pushta Pawar, 25, is a farmer’s daughter who belongs to a small village called Ballad near Pokharan. She is a newly married woman and has many dreams.

However, due to the nature of her work, she lives away from her husband, who comes to visit her often. Even though both of her parents haven't been educated, Pushta and her siblings all have post graduate degrees, thanks to their parents' emphasis on education.

"My father is a farmer and he knows how difficult it is to be a farmer in today’s time," she said. While most of the girls in her village were married off before they even turned 18, Pushta decided she would get married when she was independent and had a job.

The government provided mud-huts have minimal facilities. Deprived of any sort of entertainment, Pushpa and Pushta find comfort in each other’s company. They share a small hut, cook together and even perform their work tasks together. As part of their jobs, they oversee the area for any kind of encroachment, ensure the birds have water throughout the season, and report any sort of emergency.

Pushta says, “It is not a difficult job, but people usually don’t opt for wildlife projects; they don’t want to live this far off. In the summer, temperatures can rise above 50 degrees Celsius. The sand storms fill our rooms with a foot-high layer of sand. The food options are very limited, we mostly rely on lentils and black tea."

Amid the monotony of desert life, it is their unconditional friendship which helps them live and work.

The loneliness is probably the biggest aspect to fight here. However, they keep themselves busy by preparing for different competitive exams to explore more employment options or probably to take up jobs that promise a better work-life balance. For them, there is no end to dreaming for a better life.

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