A day at the races LIFE & PEOPLE Frontline

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