The Last Nomadsrnby Gregory McNameernDesert Placesrnby Robyn DavidsonrnNew York: Viking Press;rn288 pp., $23.95rnIn his journal, the psychologist WilliamrnJames records that he once metrnSir James Frazer, whose Golden Boughrnhad been among the first Western booksrnto attempt to record systematically thernbeliefs of traditional peoples around thernworld. James, then undertaking ambitiousrnprojects of his own, asked Frazerrnwhether he had ever met any of the “natives”rnhe had studied for so many years.rn”Heaven forbid,” Frazer replied.rnFor many years it has appeared thatrnRobyn Davidson would follow Frazer’srnlead in avoiding the natives along herrnpath (and, for that matter, anyone else).rnBest known for her 1980 book Tracks, anrnaccount of a camelback journey acrossrnthe Australian desert, Davidson had acquiredrna reputation for solitary wanderingsrnin difficult places, and for exquisitelyrnthoughtful, sometimes hard-edgedrntravel writing. “You can walk for monthsrnin Australia without meeting a single human,”rnDavidson writes in her new book.rnDesert Places. “The Australian desertrnand the hunter-gatherers who translatedrnit had so informed my spirit that therncrowds of Pushkar were unnatural andrnfrightening to me.”rnPushkar lies in the middle of anotherrngreat desert, the Thar, a 230,000-squaremilernexpanse of formidably dry countryrnin northwestern India, hard by the Pakistanirnborder. Despite its apparent desolation,rnDavidson found the Thar to bernfull of people, like every other corner ofrnSouth Asia. Throughout her narrativernshe reports being engulfed by curiousrnonlookers, by beggars pleading for baksheesh,rnby improbably large numbers in arnharsh land of “granite outcroppings,rnnaked but for a few gullies of monsoonrnforest or a single, white-painted elephantrnstationed on a summit eternally surveyingrnthe farmlands below.” Yet Davidson’srnpicture of a “twilight-and-dune”rnThar changed, she reports, the minuternshe set foot in the dusty Indian outback,rnwhere “lawlessness, poverty, and desperationrnwere the norm,” a place of leakyrnnuclear power stations and dacoit-infestedrnbadlands.rnThe present world has little roomrnfor such quaint people as the Rabari,rnthe camel- and sheepherding nomadsrnamong whom Davidson chose to live,rnwho are fast being modernized andrnpressed into the global monoculture, untilrna people who once were at home everywherernare fast becoming at homernnowhere. In the case of the Rabari, thisrnis a recent phenomenon, as India’s populationrnswells to fill previously uninhabitedrnplaces, and it spells the death ofrntheir culture. “When you traveled withrnus,” a Rabari tells Davidson on a returnrnvisit to the town of Pushkar, “we werernunsophisticated people. Now we drinkrnCoca-Cola just as the [foreigners] do.”rnThe Rabari had Coca-Cola. Davidsonrnhad a tremendous reserve of will, money,rnand a teach-yourself-Gujarati text that,rnshe explains in a Lawrence Durrell-likernaside, contained phrases like “the lock ofrnyour musket is rusty,” “you will bernhanged tomorrow,” and “a sepoy shotrnhimself.” What she did not have, in thernend, was the heart to write a picturesquerntravel article, “another bit of noise for arnculture drowning in noise.”rnDesert Places thus becomes a work ofrnamateur anthropology, reporting on thernfinal days of a nomadic culture. The operativernword is amateur, and I do not sayrnthis pejoratively. Free from the stricturesrnof traditional ethnography, in which thernobserver is meant to respond as an impartialrnwitness and recorder, Davidsonrnprobes Rabari culture with a criticalrneye. Sometimes she likes what she sees;rnsometimes she does not. She constantlyrnwonders at confusing Rabari norms, onrnthe people’s ability to accept secondclassrncitizenship and the other indignitiesrnof Third World life in a countryrnwhere nothing works. “Why,” she asks,rn”didn’t they stab and shoot each other,rnas they did in America; why didn’t theyrnpick petty bureaucrats up by the scruff ofrntheir necks and beat their brains out?”rnDavidson admits at moments to dislikingrnthe whole Rabari people, who, inrnthe face of the Western luxuriousnessrnthat Davidson tries to shun but cannotrnwholly disavow—she roams the desert,rnafter all, in an air-conditioned Jeep—oftenrnexhibit “the avarice for which theirrncaste is famous.” But she is harder onrnupper-class Indians who abuse their servantsrnas if they were dogs, who cherishrncaste, and who regard wanderers like thernRabari as somehow less than human.rnDavidson recognizes that there may bernadaptive advantages to the psychic securityrnof knowing who you are in relation tornevery other person in the terribly crowdedrnconfines of India, but she does notrnendorse the mechanism.rnMostly Davidson is enchanted byrnIndia, a bewitchment she reports inrnextraordinary descriptions of smallrnmoments and little details:rnCrammed into that tiny room werernthe most glamorous creaturesrnimaginable with kohl-rimmedrneyes, perfect white teeth, banglesrnup to their armpits, earrings andrnnose rings and silver balls danglingrnhere and there, a kilogram of silverrnaround each ankle (women carryrnmuch of the family wealth in thernform of jewelry, a habit whichrnsometimes entices bandits to severrnlimbs from living bodies), calflengthrnskirts containing many yardsrnof printed cotton, red-pink-yellowbluernmuslin orni stitched over withrnsilver—and from each of thosernValkyries a reined-in energy whichrnmade me feel that if I lit a matchrnthe whole jhumpa would explode.rnThe study of other cultures, ClaudernLevi-Strauss once observed, affords us arntuning fork against which we can soundrnour own. Davidson extends the Orientalistrntradition of Gertrude Bell, FreyarnStark, Anne Campbell Macleod, and EllarnChristie, who traveled the edges of thernold British Empire and wrote remarkablernaccounts of what they saw. But morernthan anyone else she resembles BrucernChatwin, whose The Songlines, for all itsrnmany fictions, has sent popular anthropologyrnand travel writing in new directions.rnBoth authors have a wide view ofrnphilosophy and history; both are concernedrnwith cultures that are not long forrnthis postmodern world; both are expertrnwriters; and both seek, out there in thernbush, some notion of what it means tornlive in these tumultuous times.rnGregory McNamee’s most recent booksrnare A Desert Bestiary (Johnson Books)rnand The Sierra Club Desert Readerrn(Sierra Glub Books).rnSn – 5459rn40/CHRONICLESrnrnrn