Books

Michael Benanav travels with nomads

Journalist and photographer's new book takes him to the Himalayas

By Johanna DeBiase
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 11/7/18

Can man and nature live in harmony? These days with the growing research on climate change, it's hard to imagine such a possibility.

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Books

Michael Benanav travels with nomads

Journalist and photographer's new book takes him to the Himalayas

Posted

HIMALAYA BOUND, An American Journey with Nomads in North India, By Michael Benanav, 224pp., Pegasus Books, $16.95.

Can man and nature live in harmony? These days with the growing research on climate change, it's hard to imagine such a possibility.

Once a long time ago, many indigenous cultures lived in balance with their surrounding wilderness. Yet many descendants of these indigenous cultures have been forced into a western lifestyle, often leaving behind the things that brought them sustenance, as well as joy, in exchange for a life of poverty and struggle.

We don't have to look much further than our own country where bison, once sustainably hunted by the Plains Indians, were nearly extinct by the late 19th-century due to harsh western practices, such as ranching and large-scale hunting. However, you may be surprised to learn that even in present day, some indigenous cultures in small pockets of the world still live in an ecologically sustainable way.

In the newest book by New York Times journalist and photographer, Michael Benanav, we follow him as he journeys with nomadic water buffalo herders, the Van Gujjar people of northern India, during their 2009 migration to their summer meadow.

An estimated 30,000 Van Gujjars live in the jungles, moving seasonally between the Shivalik Hills, an east-west mountain range north of Delhi, to the higher neighboring range of the Himalayas. They are believed to have come to this region from Kashmir some 1,500 years ago.

They are illiterate and only speak their native dialect, Gujari. Benanav writes of his interest in living amongst and reporting on the Van Gujjars, "From the moment I heard about the Van Gujars, I'd wanted to document their spring migration to the Himalayas. It sounded like an incredible undertaking: entire families marching with herds of water buffaloes into the highest mountains on earth."

An incredible undertaking indeed. Many people would not be willing to undertake such a grueling and epic adventure. For weeks, Benanav lives in loosely constructed tarp shelters in horrible weather conditions from sweltering heat to freezing rain and cold, eats their minimalist vegetarian diet of chipatis and buffalo milk, hikes miles a day and helps with difficult chores, such as collecting firewood without an axe and hauling supplies.

In time, his hard work pays off and he wins the respect of the family. He also wins the respect of his reader as we follow him on his trek, wondering if we'd have it in us to endure that same adventure.

At the heart of Benanav's story is an even more important tale: the fate of the Van Gujjars, a sad paradigm for a worldwide issue most Westerners may know nothing about. The Van Gujjars are trying to get back to their ancestral summer meadow, which since 1990 has been enclosed inside Govind National Park.

In India, the Wildlife Protection act of 1972 banned people from living within parks, and though the Van Gujjars have gotten by for many years by bribing park officials, the year Benanav joins them, the head of the park department is not as cooperative. He threatens to keep them out and not let them back into the park ever again. This is devastating to the Van Gujjars.

"Despite the assurances made by many different governments that taking people out of the wilderness would improve their lives, many conservation refugees have struggled to adjust to lifestyles that they don't want, wallowing in poverty as they've been stripped of the ability to sustain themselves in the only ways they've ever known. Meanwhile, cultural losses have reached tragic proportions as communities disconnected from their lands and their ways of life, and exposed to new and different influences, simply can't maintain many of their cherished traditions," Benanav writes.

As Benanav relays his long journey, the Van Gujjar family he lives with becomes more than just a tribe to him and to the reader. They are individuals that we grow to care for and value. They love their family and their buffaloes, are enduring, compassionate and hardworking, and live peacefully in the world and tread lightly.

Along with the people and their struggle, Benanav never fails to forget the most important character in this epic tale, the landscape. He writes about the scenery with active verbs as if it were trekking along beside him instead of idly gazing down upon him.

"As soon as you step foot into the hill country," he writes, " you are dwarfed by terrain that is suddenly thrust skyward and hewn by force of rivers and rain and wind into a muscular limestone labyrinth, a mess of towering ridges and deep waterways that instantly impress a sense of smallness and humility into anyone who isn't cursed with a pathological amount of hubris."

The book includes 16 pages of beautiful color photographs taken by the author.

Of course, it is of note that we are being led into this foreign world through the eyes of a Western white man and his romanticized version of nomadic life. Benanav even gets caught up in the idealistic notion of their lifestyle as he considers for a moment what it might be like to leave behind his life in the U.S. and live among them.

Still, until a Van Gujjar writes a book about their own people, this is as close as we can get. And Benanav is conscientious about remaining an observer, though an empathetic one. This is an important story that brings awareness to the plight of a little-known group of marginalized people.

So, the question remains, can man live in harmony with nature? Benanav considers that not only can they, but when done sustainably as the Van Gujjars have, man might even be necessary. Examples around the world have shown that some nomadic people aid in maintaining the healthy ecosystems of terrains made into wildlife refuges and National Parks.

Benanav is a freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in The New York Times, Geographical Magazine, Lonely Planet Guidebooks, CNN.com, and other publications. He is the author of two previous, critically acclaimed books, "Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold," and "The Luck of the Jews: An Incredible Story of Loss, Love and Survival in the Holocaust." When he's not traveling, he splits his time between Dixon and Santa Fe.

Benanav will present a slideshow of photos he took while on his migration with the Van Gujjars and answer questions Nov. 17 as part of the ongoing Prose Month series at SOMOS, 108 Civic Plaza Drive. Tickets are $8, $5 for SOMOS members. For more information, visit somostaos.org or call (575) 751-0081.

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