National Geographic : 1993 Sep
EARLY MORNING in Gujarat. Only a tarpaulin shelters us from the poisonous sun of northwest India. A baked wind rushes under it as I sit and wait with my compan ions, pastoralists called the Rabari-those "outside the way." The plowed field where we have camped stretches flat to the horizon, and the day's mirages are gradually forming. A herd of goats appears, creating an optical illusion. The hundreds of legs look like the legs of one creature -a monstrous milli pede-flowing across the shimmering back ground, followed by a lone goatherd. It is mid-October and my sixth day on the annual migration called the dang, when groups of Rabari (from five to fifteen fami lies) set out with their livestock in search of green pasture. They wander from autumn through the following spring, during the dry months between the southwest monsoons. Hour upon hour of boredom weighs on me as we wait to shift camp and follow the herds, perhaps five miles today, perhaps 20-I have no way of finding out. The wall of language is unscalable, a defeat. I am unable to com municate my needs, as helpless as an infant. I bury myself in a book, while pressed up against me the ladies stitch, blow their noses, and spit and belch like football players. There are a couple of men under the tarp with us, shivering with fever. One crawls out to vomit. Baby goats covered with sores drink from our water pots and urinate on our mats. What am I doing here? I try to take notes, but the words seem to evaporate into the blue. I hear my name; the women are talking about me, but they speak in Gujarati, a language related to Hindi. They think my name is ridiculous, so they call me Ratti Ben (Sister of Blood). My eye lids are growing heavy, and in that forest between sleep and wakefulness I understand, with immeasurable relief, all their words. I try to fix them in my brain for later, but my everyday mind closes over that fertile ground like parking lot concrete. I find myself suspended in a vast loneliness. I drift into sleep. The ladies are addressing me. I want to grab my head and shake the concrete out. They shout as if to a deaf person or an idiot. They put a pen in my hand, indicating that I should write and remember names-uncles, cousins, mothers' sisters' husbands-admon ishing me like a pack of crows. Then I hear, "Ratti Ben, chapio-have some tea." Nakki, wife of the migration leader, is leaning over me with a cup of tea in her hand and a worried smile on her face. I must not sleep there, she motions-scorpions. The Rabari are one of perhaps a dozen castes of livestock-breeding seminomadic peoples of northwest India. Their origins are unknown, and old census reports dismiss them as camel rustlers, cactus-eaters, and stealers of wheat. According to one tradition, all the Rabari once lived in Rajasthan-in Jaisalmer, in the Great Indian Desert (map, page 73). Over the centuries they spread into many other states, integrating themselves into Hindu culture as they went, splintering into countless subcastes, but retaining always their Rabariness, their "otherness." I first met the Rabari in 1978 in Pushkar, Rajasthan, during a Hindu festival. Thou sands of camels were tethered in the hills, and among them cooking fires glowed through lavender dust. A woman called me over for tea. Her silver ornaments scintillated with the flames, and when she moved, she rattled. She wore a veil over what looked like a pixie's hat. Had she pulled out a wand and offered me three wishes, I could not have found her more fantastic. When I returned 12 years and several life times later to write about the Rabari, my plan was simple. I would travel around the arid regions of Rajasthan until I found a group with whom I felt a strong rapport. Then I would buy myself a camel or two, live with these Rabari in their village, and leave with them on migration. Photographer Dilip Mehta would rendezvous with us occasion ally as we traveled. I purchased a jeep in Jodhpur and drove A dash of red paint and a garlandofflowers adorn a young groom before his wedding. The Rabari celebrate such ceremonies in the summer monsoon season, when good grazing allows them to stay home.