Sunday, 6 June 2010

Rajasthan - Desert Places

It's quite apt that the first book I found about Rajasthan was written by Queenslander Robyn Davidson!  Davidson is an interesting character in her own right.  She travelled across Australia with camels in her early 20's, she was friends with Bruce Chatwyn (of The Songlines fame) and Salman Rushdie.  Davidson has a long connection with India, particularly Rajasthan and dreamed for years of going on a migration with one of the Rabari/Raika tribes that traditionally criss-cross the Rajasthani deserts with their herds of camels.

It's a strange book in many ways and Davidson admits herself that it's very much a book about failure.  She manages to do bits and pieces of migration with Rabari tribes but, the reality is that life has changed so much for nomads in the modern-era that this type of migration is rare, fraught with danger and closed to foreigners.  Her book reminded me of two other ones - Louise Waugh's Hearing Birds Fly which I read when I was learning about Mongolia and Ffyona Campbell's book about walking through Africa on foot.  The main question that comes to mind is - why?  Why would you want to put yourself through such hardship, when your presence is obviously upsetting the natural rhythm and balance of life of the communities you're passing through?  It seems to be something that women travel writers do and I wonder if that's because women are much braver than men in many ways, or perhaps there is a deeper committment to really understanding the communities these women adopt.  I admire all of them for doing it and I think Davidson made great personal sacrifices to understand a tribe and way of life that the rest of the world has very much forgotten about.

She makes some really interesting observations about the nomadic way of life and talks about the 'traditional' nomads as people who feel at home anywhere.  Davidson and many other Westerners are like modern nomads, people who feel at home nowhere and need to travel to find a sense of identity.  I can really relate to this, as I've spent a large part of my adult life living abroad, even now, this blog is a yearning for a more nomadic way of life.  One of the reasons I live in London (and Davidson also lived here for many years) is because it's one of those cities where the whole world is living.  You don't need to travel in London to experience a wide variety of cultures and that's what I love about living here.

The Rabari lost their traditional routes into the Sindh after the partition of India and Pakistan, so they starting migrating to Utter Pradesh, grazing their camels (often nowadays, sheep) on land that is already overpopulated, bringing them into conflict with settled communities.  Ecological change and a massive human population have put a strain on this part of India that throws the nomadic tribes into competition for pastures.  Efforts to improve the ecological situation by growing new forests has cut the nomads off from large areas of (what was) free grazing land and they find themselves negotiating a passage between angry famers and corrupt officials. 

Davidson also talks a lot about the position of women in Indian society.  She points out the fact that women traditionally carry all of the family's wealth, in the form of gold bracelets and anklets.  The woman herself becomes like a possession - by protecting her, the man is protecting his property, so the woman becomes property by extension.  She highlights the different attitude Indian women have to menopause.  Whilst, for a Western woman, it can be an incredibly traumatic experience, a loss of power and the start of a woman's decline - for India women the end of child-bearing is a relief and menopause marks the beginning of a woman's ascendancy in terms of power. 

She struggles a lot with the child marriages that are prevalent in the this part of India, but she comes to the conclusion that it is important not to be too judgemental of other people's cultures.  It's okay to criticise your own culture, but you need to be careful when criticising someone else's culture, especially when you don't understand it.  Something that comes out strongly in the book and really reminded me of my 'relationship' with Russian culture, is the fact that she comes to hate India, then love it, then hate it again.  Learning to hate aspects of another culture is really the beginning of a process of understanding that culture.  After all, if you didn't love or hate a culture, you wouldn't really feel part of it.  I guess, everyone who lives in another culture needs to find a sense of balance.  Sadly, some ex-pats get obsessed with the things they hate about the new culture and, consequently, romanticise their home culture in a way that is unrealistic. 

She also deals with the age-old issue of tradition versus modernisation.  Coming from the West, where people generally have a sense of loss of traditions and an complex attitude towards the changes being brought about by globalisation, we often go to places like India and come to the conclusion that a traditional way of life is what people there need.  In good faith, we don't want people in other parts of the world to be overwhelmed by the consumerism of the West, drowned in concrete, plastic, Coca-Cola and McDonald's.  What Davidson reminds her readers, and a point that I think is good to keep perspective, is that we don't have the right to tell other cultures whether or not they should 'modernise' and embrace Western consumerism.  A lot of our consumerism in the West is tied up with comfort and it's only right that other people should have comfort in their lives.  I think we can see the spiritual destruction that mass consumerism causes, but it's something we need to deal with in our own cultures, we've interfered in other people's cultures far too much in the past and this is what created the current situation in the first place.  It's a difficult issue and one that causes much debate, but I generally agree with Davidson's point of view. 

Another big theme for Davidson is the issue of language.  She really suffers at her inability to communicate with the Rabari people she eventually travels with.  It doesn't matter whether you're a polyglot who speaks seven or eight world languages - suddenly finding yourself in a Rabari tribe with limited Hindi and no idea which local language (Marwari, Gorwari or Dingle) is the best to learn, puts you right back at square one.  She misses conversation in English, probably more than any other 'comfort' in her entire journey.  She also spends a large part of her time in neighbouring Gujarat.  I didn't really understand why she suddenly went to Gujarat, when it seemed as though she had just managed to set herself up with a proper migration (after many failed attempts) back in Rajasthan.

An interesting comparison with Ffyona Campbell's book about Africa, was the shame of being stoned by villagers and children.  Campbell also mentions this, as she was walking through Congo.  Like Campbell, Davidson realises that the children are throwing stones at her, not because they want to hurt her, but more because she is a 'white ghost' - they've probably never seen a foreigner before and they want to see if she is real, to hit her with a stone and see if there is any kind of reaction.  I remember a Peace Corps volunteer, who was African-American and had been sent to a little village somewhere in Uzbekistan.  She also got stoned by the local children, probably for similar reasons.  I imagine it was quite a shock for the locals, never having seen a black person before, to suddenly see this woman walking through their village.  I guess someone has to be the first!

There was so much in Davidson's book and I took reams of notes, so to summarise - I also learned about Andrew Wyeth's landscape paintings, Amarkot, the Raos, professional geneologists who record the births, deaths and marriages of Rabari clans in large books weighing several kilos.  I learned about etiquette behind monetary gifts, the differences between the Rabari of Rajasthan and the Raika of Gujarat.  I learned about the people of the Kutch and how they look towards the sea, rather than the desert, for their world view.  I learnt that all Rabari marriages in Gujarat take place on Khrishna's birthday, the 2nd of September.  I learned about the horrors of Guinea worm and the latent anger in India cultures.  I learned about dacoits and the Bhil tribes of the Aravalli mountains.  I learned lots of new words, such as chillum, punkah, lathi, jhonpa, charpoi, gundah, badmaash, unth wallah, lucerne, jaggery, pannikins, shagun, sarpanchs and dotterels!

Image credits

The image of the book cover is from

I absolutely love the image of the camel shadows, which is by flickruser Peter Davis who is from Seattle.  Thanks Peter for sharing this with the world using the Creative Commons License.  You can see more of Peter's photos at
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