Ding-dong with the dang

Robyn Davidson spent months trying to get under the skin of the nomads of Rajasthan: Desert Places by Robyn Davidson Viking, pounds 18
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Disaster is the very stuff of life for the travel writer. In the finest books of the genre, misadventures jostle for recognition: if it had been plain sailing from Peking to Kashmir Peter Fleming would have written a very dull account (Nothing Special to Report from Tartary), and had Apsley Cherry-Garrard been obliged to call his book The Most Comfortable Journey in the World we would have forgotten him long ago.

A portion of adversity leavens the mix. If the entire journey, however, is a trajectory of misery, the writer's only hope lies in redemption, ''I may have had a vile time, but look what I learnt.''

You have to be a good writer to pull it off, and Robyn Davidson is almost up to the job. Desert Places is her second travel book in sixteen years. The first, Tracks, which tells the story of a solo camel traverse through the Australian desert, became an international bestseller and is currently being made into a film starring Julia Roberts. The death of a dog and the irritating existence of a photographer are leitmotifs of both books, but there the similarity ends. In Desert Places Davidson takes herself off with a dang of the little-known Rabari tribe on their migratory cycle in Rajasthan and northern Gujarat, and she has a very bad time of it indeed. Frustrated at every turn by cultural barriers as impenetrable as the Himalayas, Davidson discovers ''a reservoir of suspicion and fear'', and in order to survive she learns to effect a psychic disappearing act.

When she set off she had 20 words in common with her new family, and her mute status bedevils the journey. Irredeemably different, when she tries to go into town alone the Rabari force her to hire servants. ''How could I explain'', Davidson says, ''that being alone in cities was my natural state?'' Nobody in the dang really wants her, though they are all very keen on her money. When she hates India and its wretched poverty, endemic corruption and rude citizens, Davidson is brave enough to admit it.

Intellectually and emotionally she struggles to understand the shifting sands of Rajasthani political culture and ''that Indian patience tempered through millennia''. Her attraction to the overall pattern of traditional cultures in general and the Rabari version in particular never falters. ''How comforting it must be'', she says, ''to pass through life's storms always with the thought of the group infusing every action and every thought with one voice extending from the time of one's ancestors down through the generations saying, "It's all right. We are all here. There is no such thing as alone.'' Indeed.

The relationship between landscape and character is central to Davidson's work, and she is strong on this notoriously treacherous stretch of the human landscape. Desert cultures, she writes, seldom have a word for thank you, because sharing is integral to survival. The poignancy of the narrative flows from the realisation that everything she instinctively admires is going down the drain. But then, her vision of the world is predicated on decline.

She is a gifted observer of human behaviour, noting, for example, ''that mutual shyness brought about by an intensity of liking''. Her prose is a model of clarity, and for that one can forgive its pedestrian rhythm and occasionally flaccid syntax. Davidson can be very good (she describes her stomach as ''an organ of sabotage''), and then a desperate attempt to make it all hang together by dint of sheer stylistic felicity betrays her. ''The world is divided'', she blunders, ''between those cultures which touch their own faeces and those which don't.'' Bollocks it is.

In Tracks she said that the one question people asked before getting on to the perennially fascinating topic of dealing with bowels and periods in the wilderness was, ''Why did you do it?'' (and that was when she was enjoying herself). The answer, I think, is that she is on a quest to find meaning in the journey of life. She wants to salvage something from the tragedy of the human condition, just as the obligations of a book contract require her to salvage something from a horrid journey. It is the deserted places of Robyn Davidson's heart that make this book worthwhile. Her voice is of her generation; a female voice, struggling not so much to be heard as to hear itself.

She throws in the odd morsel for us to chew on as we flail around in her general malaise. During the two years she spent on the subcontinent she endured a phantom menopause (she was 41 when she went). ''In the west'', she writes, ''the cessation of egg-laying signalled the end of female power, in India its beginning.'' In the end, though, she can't make much sense of her experiences with the dang, and the residual pointlessness of the book is rendered more acute by some rather beautiful photographs which are entirely out of tune with the text. The message of Tracks was that anyone, especially women, can do anything. By Desert Places Davidson is not so sure. She has discovered the impossibility of making the leap into another person's consciousness. The process is as painful on a journey towards northern Gujarat as it is on the other one, towards death. In the end, everyone else is a stranger.

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