Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads is an intensely moving autobiography by Ilse Kӧhler-Rollefson, a German vet. The book chronicles Rollefson’s journey from being a vet to an avid activist–a journey that seems serendipitous and gratifying.
Set in the picturesque state of Rajasthan, Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads also explores the intimate relationship that the Raika–the traditional camel keepers–share with camels. A relationship that goes beyond wealth creation. It is an enduring man-animal companionship. A Raika’s life revolves around camels.
It so happens that the Raika community was created to take care of camels. A popular Raika legend has it that the camel was created by Lord Shiva at the behest of his consort Parvati. When Shiva was meditating, Parvati, who did not want to disturb her husband, started making animals out of clay. She created a five-legged animal and asked Shiva to blow life into the animal. Though he initially refused, Parvati was not one to give up. Ultimately, he gave in and folded the fifth leg over the animals’ back and said uth meaning ‘get up’. After some time when the camel started creating nuisance, Parvati asked Shiva to create a man to look after the animal. Shiva rolled a little bit of his skin and dust from his hand and created the first Raika.
The story gives a glimpse into the problems of Raikas and their occupational crises in the rapidly changing social landscapes. Inside the bigger story of saving the unique humane animal culture, the author narrates her personal saga–her love for animals and her relentless pursuit to create value for the Raika community. Rollefson came to India in the 90s to study the Indian camel husbandry, and ended up dedicating her life for the welfare of the Raikas. Life takes a U-turn for this vet-turned-activist when she meets Adoji Raika, whom she fondly regards as her guru. The book also traces her journey from the initial meeting of the Raikas at Bikaner to Puskhar and Jaislamer and her relationship with them.
Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads is a well-written travelogue that has all the elements to keep the reader hooked to the story’s ups and downs. The narration is simple and the lucidity with which the author explains the rustic, traditional rural Rajasthan community is commendable. It clearly demonstrates her involvement and dedication to her work.
This book is about camels as much as it is about the Raikas and Rollefson. It is a passionate single-minded pursuit of a woman, a foreigner, a vet, to work for the welfare and betterment of the Raikas and the camels in a land she makes her own. Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads is about an inner calling. This book is recommended for both the dreamers and the doers.