In his journal, the psychologist William James records that he once met Sir James Frazer, whose Golden Bough had been among the first Western books to attempt 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. “Heaven forbid,” Frazer 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. “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 South Asia. Throughout her narrative she reports being engulfed by curious onlookers, by beggars pleading for baksheesh, by improbably large numbers in a harsh land 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.” Yet Davidson’s picture of a “twilight-and-dune” Thar changed, she reports, the minute she set foot in the dusty Indian outback, where “lawlessness, poverty, and desperation were the norm,” a place of leaky nuclear power stations and dacoit-infested badlands.
The present world has little room for such quaint people as the Rabari, the camel- and sheepherding nomads among whom Davidson chose to live, who are fast being modernized and pressed into the global monoculture, until a people who once were at home everywhere are fast becoming 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 tells 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 a picturesque travel article, “another bit of noise for a culture drowning in noise.”
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 say this 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 people’s ability to accept secondclass citizenship and the other indignities of Third World life in a country where nothing works. “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 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.” 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 that 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.
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.
The study of other cultures, Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed, affords us a tuning fork against which we can sound our own. Davidson extends the Orientalist tradition of Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, Anne Campbell Macleod, and Ella Christie, who traveled the edges of the old British Empire and wrote remarkable accounts of what they saw. But more than anyone else she resembles Bruce Chatwin, whose The Songlines, for all its many fictions, has sent popular anthropology and travel writing in new directions. Both authors have a wide view of philosophy and history; both are concerned with cultures that are not long for this 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.
[Desert Places, by Robyn Davidson (New York: Viking Press) 288 pp., $23.95]
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