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Desert Places
Robyn Davidson

A Woman's Odyssey with the
Wanderers of the Indian Desert
Published by Viking/Penquin/NY in 1996
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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To get a proper perspective of Robyn's adventures in the deserts of India near the Pakistan border, one should first read my short review of her previous book Tracks. In it she trekked alone with her three camels across 1700 miles of the western desert of Australia. Each day she packed 1500 pounds of gear on her camels and traveled the last 1500 miles with her dog, Diggity, as her only companion. About fifteen years later, she decided to experience India's desert up close and personal, and aloneness was the one thing that she was unable to buy at any price. In a country where a single rupee will hire a dozen servants, she found herself jammed in on all sides by aides, helpers, carriers, and hangers-on. Aides who refused to allow her to pack her own camels while proving again and again their own incompetency at the task. When she wanted a ride in her jeep, she found herself crushed by a dozen and a half others who jammed into the vehicle. Stuck in the midst of a cortege that talked incessantly, the only time she found a moment of peace was when she went behind a scrub bush to relieve her bladder.

In her Prelude she describes an earlier visit to India in 1978. In Pushkar, Rajasthan near the Indian desert, on one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar, she said that she was sure she was the only European around. This passage gives a flavor of her writing and the conditions she found.

[page 1] 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 center.

In her a wish took form of "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." It was a lovely image, which unfortunately she never came very close to in her journey with the nomads that she writes about in this book. But based on that vision, she cajoled and bribed her editors with a proposal to take such a trip and write a book with pictures of her experience.

How did a woman dress to travel in the desert of a country like India where no woman ever traveled alone?

[page 21] Now, my kind of work is often made more difficult by the fact of my sex and I have found it prudent not to call attention to it when I'm on the job. For this project I had chosen neck-to-ankle-to-wrist cream cotton kurta pajamas. My hair was pulled back in a bun and Iwore neither make-up nor jewellery. I looked as alluring as a cow pat.

Her first problem was finding nomads. She encountered statements like, "We do not migrate any more. Only if there is a bad drought and even then the women rarely come." She found one group that was taking camels on a several weeks' journey, and asked to go along. The answer she got was, "Sure. The bus fare is only twenty rupees." And so on. Everywhere she found another dead end. She had told her editors that there were whole villages still on migration, but now in India at the location where this was supposed to be happening she couldn't find a single one.

[page 32] Somewhere in India this was true. The problem was finding out where, when and who without a telephone, common languages or fuel.

Even a simple task as bathing and dressing for a local wedding was an adventure to her. How does one bathe with a bucket of water in a partially enclosed corner of a courtyard? She managed the best she could but ended up with soaked clothes and dry skin mostly. Then another adventure when she went to the public rest room.

[page 38] Going behind the village wall for a shit was something of a test of ingenuity also. One had to step among the clustering turds, find a couple of square inches of spare dust and hope like hell no one came past. I now understood the logic of the village women's full skirts. As for using the jar of water to clean one's rear end, I never did learn the correct technique and it's not a subject about which one feels comfortable inquiring. I tried but never quite managed to conquer squeamishness. The world is divided between those cultures who touch their own faeces and those which don't. And it seems to me that those which do have a greater understanding of humankind's relationship to earth, our alpha and omega.

Human feces were ubiquitous in India, not quickly flushed down some porcelain appliance as in the West, but rather, lying out in the open air for all to see. In this later passage she discusses the subject in some detail.

[page 125] Shit is rarely mentioned in tourist guides to India. Nor are those public loos in which faeces fill the corners and line the walls a far as the ceiling in such positions as to beggar imagination. Shit in the gutters, on the pavements, around ruins and tombs, in public gardens, sticking to your shoes, littering the banks of dams and rivers, encircling villages, piled in gullies and beside the door stops of the wealthy, recycling its way from body to body omnipresent, human shit.

Later at the wedding feast she had picked up some stomach bug and wondered how she might make a quick exit from a room full of turbaned men. Then she discovered a necessary concomitant of the "jar of water" cleansing ritual. One ate one-handed using one's other hand.

[page 42] There were millions of flies, too many bodies, heat. I thought that a little food in my stomach might combat the waves of nausea, so in my exhaustion reached out to take a sticky sweet with my left hand. A common breath was held, an old man said 'aahhhh' and just in time I checked myself. I took it with my right hand, everyone laughed, the shyness eased and we began to talk.

On pages 46, 47 she describes a treatment she received for her ailing back, which she said "felt like it had been rearranged with a jack-hammer. Lumps of gristle bound muscle to bone and, when I walked, one hip ground into its socket like sandpaper." Her therapist turned out to be a blind old woman, "frail as eggshell and blind" who used a large axe on her back. Her technique seems in many ways to mirror that of Ortho-Bionomy Phase 7 work. She would run her fingers over Robyn's back, find a hurting area, followup with tapping the area with axe, and then whack the axe solidly on the ground. Note that in Ortho-Bionomy work, the therapist allows the muscles to unknit themselves by calling attention to the sore spots and allowing them to return to their normal condition.

[page 47] Cold metal now followed the hand which seemed to intuit the most inflamed areas. Here the axe would pause, then begin softly tapping on flesh. The old woman began to chant. Once the axe was full to the brim of bad back spirits it would be banged on the earth to release them. The hand would find another spot; tap tap tap, bang bang bang and the mantras. Then went on for fifteen minutes and I thought I did notice an easing of the pain. But perhaps that was the power of suggestion or perhaps the drone of the mantra relaxed me, giving the muscles a chance to unknit by themselves. Or perhaps her faith was powerful enough to overcome her patients' lack of it.

Even though surrounded by natives of the desert, she had no one she could talk to. So when she returned to her friend Nerendra's house, she poured out her soul to him. Her description of this is indicative of the literary flourishes which infuse her writing from time to time:

[page 58] The moment I saw Nerendra all the repressed speech of the previous weeks came out like sulphurous gas from a geyser. There he sat in his rattan chair, nodding gravely, smiling occasionally as I babbled on without breath, dropping my mania into the well of being without ever hearing a splash. I talked to him the way Bhairon had sung to his goddess.

Finally she joined a long migration and found out that even getting sleep was a supreme challenge. If by 3 am she finally found oblivion in sleep, she was awakened two hours later by the men returning from patrol, if the sheep rubbing themselves against her cot unceasingly didn't wake her first. Even her punching the goats to keep them away had the opposite of the intended effect.

[page 118] The goats liked to use the corners of my bed to scratch between their horns, the bony part used for butting which is not only impervious to the human fist but can crack knuckle as if they were eggs. They accepted my punches as a sensual bonus -- proof of my affection -- and leapt on the bed for more.

She grew to hate the goats and the sheep as they kept her from sleep. One night she moved her swag outside the sheep compound and drifted off into blissful sleep, only to be awakened by the women ordering her back within with them and the sheep.

[page 136] The sheep and goats chewed and digested and coughed. They were so full of disease they were barely alive, yet they chewed the country into dust. The great grinding stomach of India, everything feeding off everything else.

Once she went with some women from the flock into a small town to place a phone call at the only telephone there, only to have the line go dead. Then a shepherd from the flock came to tell them to wait in the town. Staying awake sitting on hot pavement she waited and described the milieu surrounding her. Again she paints an image of India that escapes the guide books.

[page 139] Four hours. We sat on the scorching pavement or took turns lying on a narrow wooden plank half shaded by a wall, next to an open latrine whose stench mixed with the smells of rotting garbage, cooking oil and spice. Fifty yards down our gully was the meat market. People sipped tea beside a mound of steaming offal , pieces of anatomy being shovelled into wooden carts by thin, glistening men up to their knees in blood and muck, naked to the waist, the sunlight pounding down on them like a hammer ringing on a metal lid screwed down tight. Heat and light, flies which whirled around the piles of sticky sweets, the teacups, the children's eyes, the running pigs, the woman in crisp white sari stepping daintily amidst the shit.

In another small town, she rented a room in the only hotel, but it was so bad that she went out and slept in the jeep as best she could. The next day she was in a tea shop and described what she saw there. Another lugubrious scene of the underbelly of India.

[page 174] I sat in a tea shop. Open drains full of grey slime ran beneath my feet. A little boy was washing plates and cups in a bowl of water glutinous with grease, food matter and drowned flies. Around the boy and the plates and the plate scrapings and the slime -- a nimbus of flies. The child himself so thin you could have clasped your fingers around his waist. Beside us was a building that could have graced a street in Paris or upper west side new York. But it was broken down, the windows blinded by cardboard and tin a slum of crumbling mortar and broken glass surrounded by garbage and the smell of shit.

She came to feel rage towards India, even though it conflicted with her deepest sense of personhood.

[page 175] The words 'I hate India' did not fit with the person I thought I was. Everything enraged me but what enraged me most was the sense of hopelessness, that whatever one might try to do to change things would be crushed by the vast weight of this country, a weight measured not just by the mass but by time. You could not fight India. It taught you passivity or it drove you mad.

She found it a great relief to write about these things as it kept India from driving her mad. And yet she jostled with her conscience about what do in certain situations. Here's one example.

[page 200] If one sees a man, over-fed and crammed with gold, holding a cringing, half-starved twelve-year-old boy by the arm and beating him with a large stick, then flinging him to the floor like a bunch of rags, then turning to the white guest and smiling, obsequiously but without shame, because what he has just done is in the order of things, is his right, while the bunch of rags crawls off to weep in the corner of a cement room on his blanket on the floor, and falls instantly asleep because he works for the fat man twenty hours a day and is malnourished and exhausted. And if no one says a word or makes any move to stop it (including oneself) because the servant belongs to the fat man and, anyway, it is the child's fate and anyway, how would one's intervention change anything? Then?

One could only say in the local dialect, "Kya karen? Yaha Bharat hai" which in English says, "What to do? This is India."

At the end of the book when Robyn finally reaches her friend's Nagji's farm and a modicum of civilization, she is so tired that she writes:

[page 221] At last, at a lull in the conversation, during which I prepared my goodnight politeness because I thought I might inconvenience everyone by dying if I couldn't get horizontal.

Chutra was her constant companion for most of her travels. He handled translation for her "but he tended to labour the obvious and gallop through the difficult." He had two topics of conversation: "nothing and himself -- and he talked without cease about both." For a long time she would have gladly replaced him with Diggity, who only barked occasionally.

She arrived back safely with only a handful of treatable diseases. Somehow her love for India survived her trek, her ordeals, and a part of her, at least, she said, "would want always go back . . . would want to belong there." Why?

[page 279] Because where I came from life wasn't hard enough, or dangerous enough, to demand greatness of individuals. There, greatness was still possible.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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