Desert Places 
by Robyn Davidson.
Penguin, 280 pp., £7.99, June 1997, 9780140157628
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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’.

Although the journey was not undertaken altogether spontaneously, Davidson is tempted to present it as if it just happened, and then develop it into a metaphor for an existential quest. Her title, taken from Robert Frost (‘I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places’), shifts the focus from the real journey to the inner one. In a Prelude to the book, she seems to allude to Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: ‘Sometimes it seems as if a larger power gives a damn what you do with your life. One minute you are meandering along the road you have chosen, then suddenly you are shoved up a side street where small enticements like crumbs laid down for a bird encourage you to believe that you are meant to travel in this direction though you see nothing familiar up ahead.’ No doubt it was by chance that she met Narendra, and then met him again, but her book was, after all, commissioned; and the sense of helplessness she constantly expresses is not the helplessness of the nomadic Rabari, ostensibly the subject of the book, whose way of life is more than ever endangered. She speaks, repeatedly, of her bafflement and rage at her surroundings, but whatever privations she might have suffered, her journey was voluntarily undertaken. She travelled with what appears to have been a particularly friendly Rabari family, who must have been far more inconvenienced by having her along than she was in being there; she had, at her disposal, a chauffeur-driven jeep which she could summon when she was not trying to be a Rabari; an adoring and protective entourage (a little too adoring and too protective for her taste); and, besides her own supply of money, which would anyway have assumed a hundred times its value in its new surroundings, the backing and resources of her friend Narendra. She also had recourse to a long-distance telephone behind every other sand dune, and, as she says herself, could have cancelled her contract at any time.

The book records Davidson’s attempts to live and move with the Rabari. The life of the nomads has attractive, romantic resonances; they live on the margins of recognisable society; they are even called the ‘Bhoot Rabari’. ‘Bhoot,’ Davidson explains, ‘means ghost and Rabari means, possibly, outside the road or way, thus signifying the Rabari had done something wrong. There are other interpretations of the word’s etymology – a Persian root meaning to graze, another meaning “one who finds the pathways”.’ Life with the Rabari wasn’t easy: as the publisher put it, Davidson ‘slept among five thousand sheep, drank Guinea-worm-infested water, survived on goats’ milk and roti. But it was not so much the physical discomforts that exhausted her as the isolation imposed by the lack of a common language.’ It is not difficult to imagine what it would be like for a middle-class Australian woman were she to find herself for days on end with a group of nomads; and there is very little in the book to subvert our expectations. It is more difficult, perhaps, to imagine what it is to be a Rabari, living like a Rabari, sleeping among five thousand sheep and drinking Guinea-worm-infested water; but Davidson, constrained by her ignorance of their language, and their ignorance of hers, offers few insights on this subject.

From time to time, she laments that her journey has provided her with no ‘illumination’; yet it is not illumination one seeks in this account, but something more humble, a small-scale but sustained going-out-of-oneself into other people’s lives. To me, the idea that living in the most trying conditions with a group of strangers, and getting infected with the same diseases and sores as they have, will lead to a greater knowledge of oneself, or others, or a culture is simply wrong-headed. The book reveals a stubborn ascetic streak in Davidson: something reminiscent of the ancient Indian yogis who would inflict appalling privations and cruelty on themselves in order to blackmail God, or Truth, into appearing before them. These were the yogis that the Buddha tried, at first, to emulate, by starving and almost killing himself; he then decided that mental and physical well-being, and peace, would be more helpful in his search for Truth; and indeed, it was when he was reasonably well-fed and meditating under a tree that the illumination came to him. One might, in a different way, be reminded of Stephen Dedalus as a young man, who, after a series of rigorous and futile penances, returns to the world of sensuousness and ease, to his own delight and the relief of others – there is probably something adolescent about self-torture. But in hindsight Davidson sees her own infrequent escapes to a more ordered world with suspicion and embarrassment.

With her Rabari companions and her chauffeur, Koju, Davidson has been on a wearying journey to Ambadji, a place of pilgrimage on the top of a peak; later, she returns to a hotel room for the night:

Fifty rupees for a room empty of anything save a dozen jumbled quilts so greasy with use they had turned black, a light switch and bed bugs. I kept the light on and lay down gingerly on the filthy razais. The walls were thin. There was no lock on the door. A fat man in a white singlet barged in, then barged out again. For some hours I lay listening to truly awesome belching, farting and thirty-second throat clearings followed by splat of spit, children wailing, a wife crying and, to cap it, loudspeakers not twenty yards away, screeching bhajjans into the night. This is hell, I thought, and lay there, gnawed by bugs and by loathing for my species.

Where in the world would she have got a better room for about eighty pence a night? At least she emerged with her life and honour intact after spending a night in a room without a lock. The sounds around her did not come from psychotics, drug-addicts or social misfits, but from families; although irritating, even unpleasant, they were not menacing. ‘Fifty rupees for a room’, says Davidson, as if she were aware that fifty rupees was a lot of money in rural India. Besides the indignity of being stared at, touched and talked to, Davidson, as she often remarks, runs the risk of being duped about money: paradoxically, this book, the subject-matter of which is, at least implicitly, cultural misunderstanding and untranslatability, reveals that money alone is translatable. Davidson may be suffocated by her ignorance of local language, customs and gestures, but, like many other tourists, she never confuses the value of fifty rupees in India with, for instance, that of a pound in Britain.

Another point comes to mind reading of her travails and complaints (so similar in tone, if not in experience, to a Western tourist’s): how did such a naive and fragile people, so vulnerable to, and helpless before, duplicity, petty extortion and bad behaviour, ever come to dominate and control an entire sub-continent of loutish people, and grow rich on the fat of its land? It is a mystery.

Writing about the Rabari is not, in itself, a bad idea; thousands of marginal traditions have gone into the making of mainstream Indian culture, of Hinduism and Islam, and even of the modern Indian psyche and consciousness. While many of these traditions were ignored by scholars and historians in favour of the more central, scriptural, Sanskritic tradition, some of India’s most important modern writers – Tagore early this century, the poet A.K. Ramanujan in more recent times – have shown how the recovery of these ‘little traditions’ (to use Ramanujan’s phrase) has been crucial to the modern Indian’s sense of self. It won’t last, however. The new economic liberalisation will accelerate the demise of very many of the marginal cultures that have so far survived. Davidson tellingly describes the new India as seen on a television set in a hotel room:

I kept switching channels, trying to fit what I was seeing – the spiritual desolation of modernity – with where I had been. Gorgeous women in fabulous saris floated through kitsch marble bathrooms with gold taps, trailing pink toilet paper behind them like veils. Or poured Harpic into Western-style toilets, leaving a trail of little stars. Or gave their suited husbands Nestlé noodles when they came home from work ... And those groomed BBC women announcing the world’s most recent disasters. How alien they were. And how secure. How did those images fit with what existed on the other side of my door – the sweepers, as faceless as furniture, listlessly shifting dust from one corner to another?

This precise, mocking, even finicky recording of details – ‘leaving a trail of little stars’ – says much more than Davidson’s questions and declamations about the chilling, ambiguous nature of change in India. It also shows us how well she can write, affecting us directly when she is being least insistent, and how uncluttered her vision can be.

But there is also a danger in writing of the Rabari. For the Rabari belong to Rajasthan, North India, a region present on almost every tourist itinerary, and one which, with its turbaned men, its colourfully skirted women, camels, horses, and very particular architecture and landscape, has come to serve in travel brochures and films as a metonym for a ‘timeless India’. Indeed, it is this ‘timeless India’ which attracted Davidson in the first place; but the market fair at Pushkar which she describes in her Prelude is very much a North Indian one. Despite the heterogeneity of the country she is visiting, Davidson keeps referring to ‘India’ while describing experiences in a circumscribed portion of Northern India. I wonder how many travel books there have been by Western writers about middle-class India, where the visitor would have had a language and a colonial legacy in common with the people they were writing about. As it is, Western writers seem to feel a desperate urge, when writing about India, to escape history and language.

Time and again, Davidson, in her account of her life with the Rabari, returns to the subject of herself. There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this: the problem is that Davidson, like so many Western travel writers, relinquishes the specificity, the particularity, of her own – Australian – background and identity for the archetypal persona of the ‘Western’ visitor to India. Does an unequivocal, homogeneous entity called the ‘West’ really exist? It would certainly seem to, at least in relation to what is termed, in an ugly and misleading phrase, the ‘Third World’; it exists as an idea in forming trade agreements, embassies, passport offices and, evidently, travel books. Davidson becomes a Western visitor in India, when in England she would be an Australian woman. This almost unconscious omission, this elision, is disconcerting, especially in a writer whose most distinguishing feature is her attempt to be honest with herself. If she had allowed her Australian childhood, background, culture – a fundamental aspect of herself which presumably resides even in the accent with which she speaks English – to bear not only on her self-questionings but on her descriptions as well, her thoughts and, indeed, her conversations with herself might have been less abstract and more persuasive. But, in a book that says so much, so insistently, about so many things, and is admirable in its attempt to push experience towards a precipice, Davidson conceals more than she reveals.

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