Desert Placesby Robyn Davidson
Robyn DavidsonÆs previous book, Tracks, won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award In 1992 Robyn Davidson traveled through a yearÆs migratory cycle with the Rabari, pastoral nomads of northwest India, whose grazing lands and trading and pilgrimage routes are quickly being destroyed by new political boundaries, atomic test sites, and irrigation. Sleeping among five thousand sheep and surviving on goatÆs milk, flatbread, and parasite-infested water in a landscape of misery and haunting loveliness, she endured exhaustion, malnutrition and disease. But she gained an understanding and the trust of a fiercely courageous people with a disappearing way of life. Displaying a writerÆs acute eye for detail and a travelerÆs keen appreciation for the beauty to be found in the earthÆs most desolate landscapes, Robyn Davidson explores with ruthless honesty her own desert places even as she
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Memory is a capricious thing. The India I visited in 1978 consists of images of doubtful authenticity held together in a ground of forgetfulness. I don't know how or why I ended up in the medieval lanes of Pushkar, in Rajasthan, during one of the most important festivals of the Hindu calendar. But I'm almost sure I was the only European around.
The crowd was a deluge drowning individual will. It unmoored things from their meanings. Turbans and tinsel, cow horns lyre-shaped and painted blue, the fangs of a monkey, eyes thumbed with kohl looking into my own before bobbing under the torrent, a corner of something carved in stone, hands clutching a red veil, a dacoit playing an Arabian scale on his flute, his yards of moustache coiled in concentric circles on his cheeks -- all these elements sinking and reappearing, breaking and recombining, borne along by the will of the crowd in which a whirlpool was forming, sucking me to its centre.
A beggar was lying on his back. His legs were broken and folded, permanently, into his groin. He moved sideways along the lane, using the articulations of his spine, through garbage and faeces, drawing his flotsam along with him, rolling his eyes backwards in his head and muttering mantras, or perhaps nonsense. He wore a white dhoti and his body was whitened with ash. His turban was parrot green and I think I remember make-up on his face, though I may have painted it on afterwards. A parrot took coins from the tentacles of arms swirling above it and placed them in a bowl on its master's stomach. I breasted through the crowd, past the limbs of street sleepers jumbled in shadows, hindered by hands and imprecations, out at last to air.
You can walk for months in Australia without meeting a single human. Thousands of miles empty of footprints, unburdened by history's mistakes. Through an association with the original inhabitants I had learnt to see that wilderness as a garden -- man's primordial home before the plough. The tracks of the ancestors mapped it and gave it meaning so that however far an individual might travel from their place of origin, in the deepest possible sense he or she was forever at home in the world. In Aboriginal society everyone received a share of goods and the only hierarchy was one based on accumulated knowledge to which everyone could aspire. 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 -- evidence that agriculture had been my species' greatest blunder.
Thousands of camels were tethered on hills surrounding the town. Nomads had come here from all over north India to buy and sell their animals. I climbed up to their encampments, away from the river of souls. When I reached the crest of the hill I turned to look back. A full moon had risen. The rumble of the crowd was muffled under a layer of pink dust. There was a sensation of suspension. All around me camels sat peacefully chewing the cud. Groups of men lounged back on the sand sharing chillums. A woman called me over to her fire. Her dress was a sunset of red, pinks and silver. When she moved, ornaments rattled. A veil was draped over a contraption in her hair so that it peaked like a pixie's hat. Had she pulled out a wand and offered me three wishes, I would not have found her more fantastic. She flung down a camel-hair mat, tugged me on to it and seemed to be asking if I would swap my necklace for her silver one. I tried to explain that hers would be more valuable than mine and, despite her entreaty to stay longer, wandered away.
But a wish was forming. It took the shape of an image. I was building a little cooking fire in the shelter of soft, pink dunes, far away from anything but a world of sand. It was twilight, the lyrical hour. The nomads were gathering beside me by the fire. There was fluency and lightness between us. We had walked a long way together. The image exalted the spirit with its spareness and its repose. My only excuse for having it is that I was young, and youth is vulnerable to Romantic sentiment.
I made some inquiries. The nomads were called Raika or Rabari and they herded camels and sometimes sheep. There was a folklorist in Jodhpur who knew everything about them and would be happy to answer my queries but was busy entertaining a French journalist that week. I had eight days left in India. French journalist notwithstanding, I had to try my luck.
From DESERT PLACES by Robyn Davidson. Copyright © Robyn Davidson, 1996. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.
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On reading this book, I wondered, What is it about India that defeats the Westerner? Why is it that the reality of India is so different from an imagined India? I had read Davidson's Tracks and liked it and so was naturally interested in reading Desert Places. Davidson's honesty and the quality of her writing are definite bonuses. Though I am Indian, I suspended judgement on her (at times) judgement of India, specifically the places she visited. To boot, Davidson is also an author who takes the trouble to get her facts right - just the kind of thing that is pleasurable when you know a subject intimately. And I have to say that this book was an enjoyable read. The book this most strongly reminded me of was Joseph Campbell's diary on his Indian visit. Campbell had studied Indian philosophy and I suspect was hoping to find something exalted in India. Instead he is constantly confronted with (and records) the sheer physical discomfort of the Indian experience, the annoyingness of confronting the real life of India in the '50s. And it can be a bit amusing to find a man so passionately fond of the philosophy dealing with his discomfort of many Indian rituals - he suddenly seems every inch the Anglo Saxon (this is not to run down Campbell, I recommend Baksheesh and Brahman to most people). Ironically, I live in Australia now and all my English education notwithsatnding (and all the physical comforts notwithstanding) its taken me a long time to come to grips with the Australian character. It has also been a time of looking back at India. There are plenty of flaws in my home country - but beneath that vast jumble of events and ugliness can lie moments of harmony. Davidson gets it at times but not often enough.
I have dog-eared several pages to return to and have quoted various pages to friends. Not every is gold, but what is shines radiantly.