Sohini Sen's book takes the readers on a visual tour of Ladakh
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Although it was first published in 1980, Le Clézio's French novel was recently translated into English, following the bestowal of the Nobel Prize for Literature on him in 2008. Desert dwells on the theme of land and displacement; and the 30 intervening years since it was written seem to make little difference to the book’s context; if anything, its relevance is now more urgent.
This is a slow, intense novel that follows two threads, almost like 'before' and 'after' images. It starts in 1909 with a young boy called Nour as he travels north in a caravan of Berber tribesfolk across the Western Sahara. The nomadic Tuaregs are moving at the behest of their spiritual leader Ma al-Aïnine; they are being forced from their lands by French colonial powers. Over Nour's shoulder, we witness the gathering of tribes, the consultations, the prayers, the hope and the dread that beset the travellers. In the second thread, the plot leaps forward across several decades to Lalla Hawa, a young orphan girl growing up in Morocco. Descending from the same hardy lineage as Nour, Lalla lives in a shantytown on the coast. She spends her early life escaping to the dunes and forms a deep friendship with Hartani, a shepherd, in whose company she is able to explore the land as well as her love of it. She escapes to Marseilles to avoid a forced marriage, where mixed fortunes await her — she first endures hardship as a hotel maid but is discovered as a fashion model.
Le Clézio's book is lyrical, lush and intricately detailed. He portrays with great sympathy the epic journey undertaken by the Tuaregs. These are the 'blue men', a name that comes from their characteristic robes of indigo, a hue that rubs off on their skin. The individual characters, even the protagonists, are veiled to some extent: we do not know the particular as well as we come to know the general. The landscape — the desert — is a pervasive presence. It is sensuously described: the smells and sounds, the heat and haze rising from the land, the grit of the sand, the night skies, the creatures by light and dark... and the nomads themselves. This picture is not so much drawn as etched on the reader's mind, for Le Clézio repeats himself, applying his strokes with deliberate emphasis till the land comes to represent a state of mind, a state of being. Lalla, exiled from the free expanse of the open, thirsts for the desert. She hears its call; the regular albeit mystical visitations of al-Ser, the desert warrior, represent a memory, a yearning for a lost way of life.
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