Such a Fragile People

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Desert Places by Robyn Davidson
    Penguin, 280 pp, £7.99, June 1997, ISBN 0 14 015762 X

In 1978, a short while before Robyn Davidson returned to England to write Tracks, her book about ‘traversing the deserts of Australia through tribal Aboriginal land’, she visited India. ‘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 in the Hindu calendar. But I’m almost sure I was the only European around.’ (Things would not always be like this: soon, Goldie Hawn and others from Hollywood would arrive in Pushkar, expressing surprise and delight that people in India were so happy.) On the plane back to England, Davidson met, apparently by accident, a man called Narendra, ‘some sort of nobleman and some sort of politician’, who recognised that she was ‘the woman who walked across Australia with some camels’; it was Narendra who urged her to write a book on nomads she had seen in Rajasthan, the Raika or Rabari, who herd ‘camel and sometimes sheep’. The idea gestated for several years until she met Narendra again, at a party in London, ‘six inches shorter than I remembered him’. When he ‘reminded me of my promise to write about the Rabari and invited me to India as if it were the most unexceptional thing in the world, what could I do but agree?’ So she ‘wrote a proposal; suborned editors with that twilight-and-dune picture that had been mouldering in my mental attic; signed contracts’.

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