The Last Of The Nomads

Robyn Davidson Explores More Of India Than Sand Dunes And Sunsets.

By Gregory McNamee

Desert Places, by Robyn Davidson (Viking Press). Hardcover, $23.95.

IN HIS JOURNAL, the psychologist William James records that he once met the great mythographer Sir James Frazer, whose Golden Bough had been among the first Western books to try to record systematically the beliefs of traditional peoples around the world. James, then undertaking ambitious projects of his own, asked Frazer whether he had ever met any of the "natives" he had studied for so many years.

Books "Heaven forbid," Frazer, that proper Victorian, replied.

For many years it has appeared that Robyn Davidson would follow Frazer's lead in avoiding the natives along her path--and, for that matter, anyone else. Best known for her 1980 book Tracks, an account of a camelback journey across the Australian desert, Davidson had acquired a reputation for solitary wanderings in difficult places, and for exquisitely thoughtful, sometimes hard-edged travel writing. (Her reputation, based on a rather small body of work, has become common enough currency that Hollywood is now making a film of Tracks. Julia Roberts reportedly will play Davidson.)

"You can walk for months in Australia without meeting a single human," Davidson writes in her new book, Desert Places. "The Australian desert and the hunter-gatherers who translated it had so informed my spirit that the crowds of Pushkar were unnatural and frightening to me."

Pushkar lies in the middle of another great desert, the Thar, a 230,000-square-mile expanse of formidably dry country in northwestern India, hard by the Pakistani border. Despite its apparent desolation, Davidson found the Thar to be full of people, like every other corner of bursting-at-the-rafters South Asia. Throughout her narrative, she reports being engulfed by curious onlookers, by beggars pleading for baksheesh, by improbably large numbers of people for such a harsh land, a place of "granite outcroppings, naked but for a few gullies of monsoon forest or a single, white-painted elephant stationed on a summit eternally surveying the farmlands below."

Such places, such images, are the stuff of which adventure travel-magazine articles are made. The pretext of writing just such an article for an unnamed but evidently deep-pocketed magazine, a "twilight-and-dune picture" of the Thar, brought Davidson to Rajasthan. But that picture changed, as she reports, the minute Davidson touched foot on the dusty Indian outback, a place where "lawlessness, poverty, and desperation were the norm," a place of leaky nuclear power stations and dacoit-infested badlands, "not exactly the sunset sand-dune descriptions with which I had secured the magazine's interest and cash."

Neither were the lives of the people among whom Davidson chose to live--the Rabari, camel- and sheep-herding nomads whom 19th-century British reports call "camel thieves, cactus-eaters and stealers of wheat."

The present world has little room for such quaint people. The Rabari are fast being swept up in history's dustbin, modernized and pressed into the global monoculture; traditional nomads like the Rabari, people who are at home everywhere, are fast becoming simple dispossessed wanderers on the fringes of urban civilization, people who are at home nowhere. In the case of the Rabari, this is a recent phenomenon, as India's population swells to fill previously uninhabited places, and it spells the death of their culture. "When you traveled with us," a Rabari says to Davidson on a return visit to the town of Pushkar, "we were unsophisticated people. Now we drink Coca-Cola just as the (foreigners) do."

The Rabari had Coca-Cola. Davidson had a tremendous reserve of will, money, and a teach-yourself-Gujarati text that, she explains in a Lawrence Durrell-like aside, contained phrases like "the lock of your musket is rusty," "you will be hanged tomorrow," and "a sepoy shot himself." What she did not have, in the end, was the heart to write that picturesque travel article, "another bit of noise for a culture drowning in noise."

After taking a false start as yet another book of adventure travel--a genre that has exploded in recent years, thanks largely to the success of Davidson's great friend, the late Bruce Chatwin--Desert Places thus becomes a work of amateur anthropology, reporting on the final days of a nomadic culture. The operative word is amateur, and I do not mean it pejoratively. Free from the strictures of traditional ethnography, in which the observer is meant to respond as an impartial witness and recorder, Davidson probes Rabari culture with a critical eye. Sometimes she likes what she sees; sometimes she does not. She constantly wonders at confusing Rabari norms, on the anarchic-tending people's ability to accept second-class citizenship and the other indignities of Third World life in a country where, she says, nothing works. ("Trying to accomplish anything here was like wading through glue," she writes, while in a more literary turn, she later compares living in India to reading Tristam Shandy, that sinuous and ever-transforming narrative.) "Why," she asks, "didn't they stab and shoot each other, as they did in America; why didn't they pick petty bureaucrats up by the scruff of their necks and beat their brains out?"

Davidson admits at moments to disliking even the whole Rabari people, who, in the face of the Western luxuriousness that Davidson tries to shun but cannot wholly disavow--she roams the desert, after all, in an air-conditioned Jeep--often exhibit "the avarice for which their caste is famous." (This after months of the Rabari's constantly hitting her up for gold, for money, and for little items of world consumer culture.) But she is harder on upper-class Indians who abuse their servants as if they were dogs, who cherish caste, and who regard wanderers like the Rabari as somehow less than human. Davidson recognizes there may be adaptive advantages to the psychic security of knowing who you are in relation to every other person in the terribly crowded confines of India, but she does not endorse the mechanism. Suffice it to say it's a courageous writer indeed who can own up to such feelings while avoiding a common pose in the travel-narrative genre: the endless whining about the tea being a bit greasy and the wogs a bit uncooperative.

Mostly Davidson is enchanted by India, a bewitchment she reports in extraordinary descriptions of small moments and little details:

Crammed into that tiny room were the most glamorous creatures imaginable with kohl-rimmed eyes, perfect white teeth, bangles up to their armpits, earrings and nose rings and silver balls dangling here and there, a kilogram of silver around each ankle (women carry much of the family wealth in the form of jewelry, a habit which sometimes entices bandits to sever limbs from living bodies), calf-length skirts containing many yards of printed cotton, red-pink-yellow-blue muslin orni stitched over with silver--and from each of those Valkyries a reined-in energy which made me feel that if I lit a match the whole jhumpa would explode.

Her passion for such things enriches her writing considerably, and it gives the reader the sense that Davidson would be a good traveling companion, self-possessed and evidently fearless. (We can adduce as evidence Davidson's approach to food: "My policy in India had been to eat anything and to drink whatever water was available on the assumption that sooner or later my body would learn to accommodate bugs.")

The study of other cultures, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed, affords us a tuning fork against which we can sound our own. Davidson emerges from her sojourn among the Rabari disappointed with the soft life of Anglo-European society to which the people of India evidently aspire. In taking this critical stance, Davidson extends the Orientalist tradition of Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, Anne Campbell Macleod, and Ella Christie, women who traveled the edges of the old British Empire and sent back astonishing reports of what they saw. But, more than anyone else, she resembles Chatwin, whose book The Songlines, for all its many fictions, has sent popular anthropology and travel writing into new directions. Both authors have a wide view of philosophy and history; both are concerned with cultures that are not long for this chewed-up postmodern world; both are expert writers; and both seek, out there in the bush, some notion of what it means to live in these tumultuous times. Davidson's conclusion is luminous: "What you see," she writes, "is so astonishing that you are grateful simply to have life, to have senses within which to witness the event, even though the seeing hearing smelling touching wondering must end in nothing-at-all."

Fortunately, that play of the senses has ended instead in a fine book. TW

Gregory McNamee's most recent books are A Desert Bestiary (Johnson Books) and The Sierra Club Desert Reader (Sierra Club Books).

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