Desert Places: A Woman's Odyssey with the Wanderers of the Indian Desertby Robyn Davidson
India’s Thar Desert has been the home of the Rabari herders for thousands of years. In 1990, Australian Robyn Davidson, “as natural a travel writer as she is an/b>/i>
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From the bestselling author of Tracks: A travel writer’s memoir of her year with the nomadic Rabari tribe on the border between Pakistan and India.
India’s Thar Desert has been the home of the Rabari herders for thousands of years. In 1990, Australian Robyn Davidson, “as natural a travel writer as she is an adventurer,” spent a year with the Rabari, whose livelihood is increasingly endangered by India’s rapid development (The New Yorker). Enduring the daily hardships of life in the desert while immersed in the austere beauty of the arid landscape, Davidson subsisted on a diet of goat milk, roti, and parasite-infested water. She collided with India’s rigid caste system and cultural idiosyncrasies, confronted extreme sleep deprivation, and fought feelings of alienation amid the nation’s isolated rural peoples—finding both intense suffering and a renewed sense of beauty and belonging among the Rabari family.
Rich with detail and honest in its depictions of cultural differences, Desert Places is an unforgettable story of fortitude in the face of struggle and an ode to the rapidly disappearing way of life of the herders of northwestern India. “Davidson will both disturb and exhilarate readers with the acuity of her observations, the sting of her wit, and the candor of her emotions” (Booklist).
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A Woman's Odyssey with the Wanderers of the Indian Desert
By Robyn Davidson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Robyn Davidson
All rights reserved.
And arrived in India on the day of the worst communal violence since Independence.
The images I retained from the previous visit were tourist images: festivals, chiffon-clad women, decaying castles, peacocks settling in dusty trees. Or they were of 'old friends,' stuck in improbable settings like those cardboard carnival cartoons behind which you place your face for the photograph: Narendra being lathered and shaved as he sits on a chair on his lawn; Minu covering her face with blue silk while she talks about the rights of women. The India I had constructed from books was tolerant and rational—a country where algebra, geometry and astronomy had been studied while Europe sank into its Dark Ages, where chess and the decimal system were invented, where great men and women had sacrificed themselves to an ideal and built a functioning democracy on the ruins of colonialism, where different intellectual opinions and religious beliefs could co-exist in peace—an India that bore little relation to what was going on outside this room.
The hotel television showed angry crowds running through streets, lathi-charging policemen, religious fanatics shouting at the camera.
As part of its effort to garner a vote bank, a right-wing Hindu chauvinist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had organized a march across India to Ayodhya, a small northern town revered by Hindus as the legendary birthplace of Lord Ram. There they intended to build a temple on the exact spot where there happened to be a fifteenth-century mosque—the Babri Masjid. The BJP leader Advani, who headed the ten-thousand-kilometre procession, disported himself in a giant saffron-coloured vehicle designed to look like Ram's chariot. Huge crowds of Hindu devotees had gathered, often attacking Muslim neighbourhoods along the way. Advani was arrested before he arrived at the site where a hundred thousand kar sevaks (Hindu holy volunteers) were waiting. Some of them attempted to storm the mosque. Police opened fire. The country erupted.
Pushkar festival was a fortnight away but people were being advised not to attend populous events and anyway, there was a public transport strike. It was impossible to buy a jeep in Delhi as they had all been requisitioned by the army. I paced the hotel room, devouring newspapers and television reports, until Narendra rang. He had to return to his farm in Jodhpur, two days' drive west into Rajasthan. He could drop me off in Pushkar on the way. We arrived there just in time to see herds of camels and their Raika owners dispersing in small groups, as ordered by batteries of armed police.
As for the Land of Enchantment ... Where once little markets had cobbled together, selling everything from inlaid camel saddles to cantilevered bras, there were now rows of portable western latrines done up to look like maharajahs' tents and shops selling I'VE BEEN TO PUSHKAR T-shirts. Foreign tourists appeared to outnumber locals, most of whom had to depend on public transport which was still strike-bound. The Agriculture Ministry and the Tourism Ministry had set different dates for the fair. The nomads came early and the pilgrims came late. Any hope of heading off with the Raika was defunct.
Narendra went on to Jodhpur. I waited to meet the photographer Dilip Mehta who had been commissioned by the magazine to illustrate the Raika story. I already knew him and liked him. I also knew that writers and photographers belonged to different species and when push came to shove, which it inevitably did, relations between them could get a little strained. Therefore it was important to establish a rapport with Dilip as soon as possible. I did not have the mentality of a journalist. I liked to take my time, muse, dream—a way of absorbing information that drove real journalists crazy. Dilip had flown in the night before from Hong Kong, or Lapland, or somewhere, and driven straight here, only to find that there was nothing to photograph. Nevertheless he set off with his Nikons, looking like thunder and got into an altercation with some pilgrims who accused him of taking pictures of women bathing in the sacred tank. He returned to Delhi. I fled to Jodhpur in a taxi. There were larger things to worry about than rapport.
The night I arrived eight people were murdered in communal riots and curfew was imposed for the first time in Jodhpur's history. I wanted to stay in a hotel. The Colonel wanted me to stay with him in the town-house. Minu sent word that I should stay with her in Ghanerao. And Narendra insisted that I stay on his farm where there was a one-room cottage, just for me. I caved in to a hospitality unique to India and chose the farm for its quiet.
Narendra's house consisted of two round, red-stone jhumpas (vernacular Rajasthan architecture) with two smaller ones off each side, all roofed with conical thatch and joined by stone passages. Inside the cool white rooms a few handsome objects were distributed, simple and lovely. Shuttered windows opened on to views of chilli fields skirting castles or were covered by sticks dripping water—traditional air-conditioning. Surrounding the buildings was a raised mud and dung stoep where squirrels, birds, cobras and stoats came to sun themselves. My own little room, a hundred yards from the house, had for its roof a water tank.
On that first morning I woke to the sound of water plunging down into irrigation ditches and to peacocks, richly dressed and vacuous as maharajahs, howling like cats in the tree outside my window. From my door stretched blue-green fields dotted with trees and the coloured saris of women going to work. Grey cranes lifted their trousers and stalked about in the water like English academics on some esoteric field-trip.
My first task was trying to acquire some reliable information about the nomads. According to a census report from the nineteenth century they were camel thieves, cactus-eaters and stealers of wheat. And a Mr Dutt wrote in 1871 of the glories of Pushkar: 'We saw camels starting from this place to cross the desert, carrying men and women with their packages and supplies of food and water.' These, plus a small mention in Annals of Rajasthan by Colonel Todd, were the only references to Rabaris or Raikas I had been able to find in all the libraries of England.
From what I could make out, Rabari was the more generic term, while Raika designated a specific camel-breeding subcaste. But this was not a fixed rule and only later was the significance of naming made clearer to me. In any case, the nomads' origin outside India was lost in time. They were certainly Indo- European, light-skinned and often green- or blue-eyed. In the annals of the Indus Valley civilizations there was no mention of sheep or camels. Presumably the nomads brought them with them when they came. They had two main divisions, the Maru and Chalkia. Maru traditionally dealt only in camels, the animal with which all Rabari felt most strongly associated, believing its creation to be coeval with their own, whereas the Chalkia kept herds of sheep and goat. Their history began in Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert, from which over the centuries they had spread with their animals into other states, integrating themselves into Hindu cosmology as they went, splintering into sub-castes but retaining, always, their 'Rabariness,' their otherness.
Everyone I met had something to say about them but whatever one person stated as fact another refuted. Similarly everyone agreed that travelling with them on migration would be very easy to organize but no one suggested exactly how it could be done.
Oh, those hesitant first steps across alien terrain when you don't know the rules. You curb your spontaneity in an effort to behave in an acceptable fashion. You do away with any critical faculty which might block absorption. You do not know which advice to take, what information is true. How unstable you feel. To blunder and be forgiven, that is to allow yourself to be what you are, may be a better way of proceeding but that brand of courage was not in my nature. I crept cautiously where others may have bounded.
My plan was to purchase a jeep and drive around the desert areas by myself until I found just that group of Rabari with whom there was a strong rapport. Then, in a few months' time, I would buy myself some camels at Chaitri livestock fair near Barmer. After which I would continue to live in whatever village had been chosen until it was time to take off on migration.
Buying a jeep took more than a week. Day after day Narendra's number one servant Khan ji, ever-smiling, ever calm, shepherded me along gullies and streets, from bank to office to bank again, organized the papers, led me to other mysterious buildings, answered questions on my behalf, indicated where I should sit, sign, wait and sign again. But at last the papers were in order and there is something empowering about sitting behind the wheel of your very own jeep, banging your fist on the horn and finding your way home through lanes hardly wider than the car—lanes which, minus scooter-rickshaws, diesel fumes, synthetic saris and plastic goods dangling from the roofs of minute shops, would have looked just like this centuries ago.
'You must have a driver.'
'Narendra, I have been travelling alone for years. I assure you I do not need a driver.'
My host pondered a moment. 'But now you are in India, and in India you must have a driver.' Fantasies of throwing myself at the mercy of the open road, alone and unencumbered, vanished, never to be revived. From that moment on, no matter where I went or what I did, I was to be surrounded either by a phalanx of helpers or, more often, an audience of thousands.
Having accepted the need for a driver it was but a small step to accepting that I needed several other companions (Narendra's friends and servants) and a great deal of luggage for my first trip into the desert and my first meeting with the nomads. Bedding with crisp sheets, for example, and abundant tiffins (multi-tiered metal lunch-boxes containing at least half a dozen curries of the palate-scorching kind).
My companions were as follows: Khan ji, driver, a Rajput who had come from a village at the age of fourteen to work for Narendra, been taught to read and write and who then studied a correspondence course at night until BA level. His passion for self-improvement bordered on the pathological and, being a genius, he was somewhat daunting to be around. Takat Singh ji, an officer in the Border Security Forces and retired head of the Camel Corps. I had seen a photograph of him leading the camel parade on Independence Day through Delhi. Takat was six foot tall, had a proportionately large moustache and a laugh that could seed clouds. Mohan Singh ji, a union boss, incorruptible and deeply committed to political reform. He could speak a few words of English and was, therefore, to be my interpreter. Last on board was Mornat, king of the Rajasthan Jogis. Mornat's people were tribals, that is, outside, or rather below, the caste system. They were gypsies who traditionally hunted with dogs. But these days there was little left to hunt and little free country left to do it in. Narendra had invited Mornat and his extended family to live on his farm, setting a precedent for other Jogis who would eventually have little choice but to settle. In return Mornat, or one of his brothers, tended the log fire at night or brought the family to the house to sing and dance on special occasions, or graced the table with game.
I was somehow to lead this posse of four men without knowing any of the languages they spoke, without understanding anything of the culture in which I found myself, without the slightest clue as to where we were heading or what, really, we were looking for. My own background had fostered a deep independence in me, so that when my team inspected every movement closely or grabbed things from my hand in fits of gallantry, I got performance anxiety and felt inadequate. Perhaps I should have been firmer from the beginning and refused the solicitude of Narendra and his associates. But in India to be alone is to be a freak; to be a woman alone, an insult to chivalry; and to be a European woman alone, an invitation to misunderstanding. Narendra was right. I was in India and I should do things the Indian way, which meant employing as many people as possible to work for you and giving up any hope of ever being solitary.
The jeep was filled with grins, suitcases, arms and legs. All Narendra's staff lined up at the farm gate and bowed deeply with folded hands. Spiritual insurance in the form of yogurt and jaggery (raw sugar) was consumed, hands were brought together invoking Devi to watch out for us. Khan ji tooted the horn several times and everyone laughed and talked above everyone else. Everyone except Memsahib who smiled in a strained sort of way.
'No need to call me Memsahib. Call me Robyn.'
So unlikely was it that Memsahib could handle a jeep that when I suggested I drive Khan ji merely smiled. We were to meet an important man in Cherai, a village sixty kilometres north of Jodhpur along the Jaisalmer road. That important man would introduce us to an important man who would introduce us to the most important man of a Raika village. Or perhaps I'd got it all wrong. I would simply have to wait and see. After forty kilometres I indicated in as commanding a way as I could muster 'I will now drive.'
Memsahib sat nervously behind the wheel. Khan ji had been performing high speed wheelies through the dunes and she wasn't sure that she could match his style. All went well until we reached a dry river-bed with two tyre tracks across it. I changed into four-wheel and slowly negotiated the rocks. There was a bump. A stone had been dislodged by the front wheel and had punctured our diesel tank. We were stranded in the desert, surrounded by empty dunes.
Most men when faced with a calamity such as this would at the very least kick a tyre and say something unpleasant. Not so these Rajasthanis. They laughed, they told jokes, they brought out a tiffin, they spread mats in the miserly shade of an acra bush, they took turns in sliding under the car and getting covered in grease and diesel, they went to inspect the guilty rock in order to assure Memsahib that it wasn't her fault. However, all their assurances could not save my face and the leadership role was tacitly handed back to Khan ji who now, having emptied what remained of our diesel into a container, took the milk of an acra leaf, some soap and a rag with which to try to fix the hole.
A man on a bicycle emerged out of nothingness and sat down to enjoy the show. A little later, a family on a camel cart. Eventually a farmer on a tractor pulled up. I use the term 'tractor' loosely here. Most of the outer structures by which one would recognize it as such were missing, so that it looked like an insect some boys had tortured. The farmer stood back and scratched under his turban, assessing the damage to my vehicle. Then he took the container of jettisoned diesel, lodged it under the bonnet, fixed it down with bits of torn rag, pulled the connecting hoses out of the damaged tank under the chassis and re-routed them up through the body of the car, realigning the whole fuel system so that it fed from the makeshift container, and started the engine. Not only did it work, it got us safely through a couple of hundred kilometres of sand and rock and was later, with some refinements of engineering, made a permanent improvement on the structure of the jeep. The farmer took a cigarette for his pains and refused food.
Excerpted from Desert Places by Robyn Davidson. Copyright © 1996 Robyn Davidson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Robyn Davidson was born on a cattle property in Queensland, Australia. She went to Sydney in the late sixties, then spent time studying in Brisbane before moving to Alice Springs, where the events of this book begin. Since then, she has traveled extensively, living in London, New York, and India. In the early 1990s, she migrated with and wrote about nomads in northwestern India. She is now based in Melbourne, but spends several months a year in the Indian Himalayas.
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