National Geographic : 1993 Sep
everyone be." They strive to look long suffering, but it doesn't work. The twitch of Rabari cheek breaks through, spoiling their act. The teacher hands them ten rupees each, which they graciously accept, Nakki's eyes luminous with satisfaction. On my last evening with them the wall of language seems to collapse, and I have my first almost fluent conversation. Arjun, Phagu's son, surprises me with his words. He has admired my jeep, he tells me, on several occasions when friends have used it to bring me mail. He wants to be my driver. "But I already have a driver, and anyway you can't drive," I protest. "You can teach me." "But why do you want to leave your flocks? Is it the money?" No, not money. "Then, is it the difficulty and danger of the work?" No, he did not mind hard work. It was the constant fights and trouble, he explained. There was no peace for them, night or day. The farmers threatened them; the police harassed them. Politicians demanded bribes to let them graze where they had freely grazed before. As another Rabari said, "Once we were like kings; now we are treated like dogs." Day Seventy-five On my last day the women come to say good-bye, carrying cere monial pots on their heads and singing. I am close to tears. They tease me, of course. They are the most unsentimental of people. All morning Phagu has been walking around holding my hand. He wants to buy Ram Rahim, but I refuse. They want to extract as much as they can from me before I leave, but it is also true that their fondness is genuine. After all, didn't I provide them with some good laughs? A vehicle occasionally? Money? And wasn't I, in the end, almost as tough as they? The yellow-eyed dog, which had ended up sleeping in my tent, comes to say good bye, even allowing me to pat his head. Phagu says, "Take the dog and leave us the jeep." Then there are hugs all around, the kissing of palms, and more hugs. I depart to the sound of singing. I HAVE NEVER DONE ANYTHING in my life as demanding as traveling with the Rabari. I did not have a decent sleep or wash in months. I was sore in bones I didn't know I had. I harbored infections that were impervious to drugs. I killed scorpions with my shoe. But I could go back to comfort and security; the Rabari could not. My admiration for them was boundless, and while I hated them sometimes, I never disliked them. They endured everything without complaint, and they would often walk 20 extra miles to a temple in order to thank the divinities for life. I never saw any one of them commit an act of cruelty. And there was nothing servile about them. They asked for neither charity nor an easy life, only recognition of the value of their expertise and the same kind of govern ment support that Indian farmers automati cally receive. I do not wish to glorify them. They are as capable of underhandedness as anyone in their struggle for survival, and their herds and flocks do untold damage. But no more so than the plows and poisons of the farmers, and not as much as the venality of the politi cians and police who exploit them. Perhaps in a country as desperate as India it is absurd to single out one group for better treatment. Yet something invaluable will be lost if their migrations cease, because it is mobility that engenders the qualities that so distinguish them-tolerance, wiliness, independence, courage, wit. Sometimes, when it was particularly hard for me, they would pause in their work to smile, knowingly and kindly, or to whisper into the darkness, "Go to sleep, Ratti Ben," or to call, "Ho, Ratti Ben, come drink tea," a phrase with which they might convey an ambiguous and difficult affection. It was at those moments that the shadow of something infinitely remote touched us, fleetingly unit ing me with them so that I too could hear the faint echo from our common, immeasurably distant past: "It is all right. We are all here. There is no such thing as alone." [ With a confidence born of open spaces, a young herder tends hisfamily's camels in Gujarat.His chances of holding on to this unfettered life into adulthood diminish with every fence and every angryfarmer who chases Rabari herds from his fields.