SUNDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2012 • THE BULLETIN
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By Michael Benanav
thorities, it seems, have begun to accept the fact that India's Forest Rights Act gives tribal people like the Van Gujjars rights to use their traditional lands even if they are inside a park. But, he went on, there were new troubles facing the tribe right where we were, in the Shivaliks. Some villagers who live on the edge of the for-
New York Times News Service
The rutted road, part paved, part dirt, was a border between two worlds. To the left, a patchwork of villages, farms and fields covered the fertile plains between the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. To the right rose the rugged, forested wilderness of t h e S h ivalik Hills. Dehradun, the bustling capital of the northern state of Uttarakhand, was just 20 miles away, but felt m uch, much farther. This October, I, along with a translator, Debopam Battacharjee, hitched a ride down that road on a d a iry t r uck loaded with empty milk cans. When it stopped after about an hour, we continued on, hiking for another four miles. Then we turned right, up a rocky streambed, toward the hills and into the jungle. I was looking for some friends who live there, at least part-time. They are a family of nomadic water buffalo herders. Two years ago, I had joined them on their annual spring migration from the low-altitude Shivaliks where they spend each winter to the high Himalayan meadows where they graze their livestock in summer. Their tribe, the Van Gujjars, has moved up and down with the seasons for about 1,000 years. But in 2009 their age-old m i gratory l i f estyle was facing a serious threat: t he ancestral p a stures o f thousands of Van Gujjars had been absorbed into national parklands, and park authoritieswere poised to enforce a policy banning the nomads from using them. I w a nted to document the migration, partly to preserve a glimpse of their traditional way of life while it still existed, partly to raise awareness about their
struggles. And, yes, partly because it just seemed as if it would be an amazing thing to experience. Through a small Dehradun-based nongovernmental organization c alled the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities, I was introduced to a Van Gujjar family, who agreed to let me go with them. Living and traveling together for 44 days — moving as a caravan through busy towns and silent forests, sleeping on roadsides and mountainsides, crossing rivers an d a l p ine passes, sharing the joys and tribulations of the trail — we became close. I was awed by how deeply they cared for their animals; they thought it was hilarious that I would try almost anything that they did, whether it was drinking milk directly from a buffalo's udder or attempting and failing to lift the huge bales of fodder — leaves or grass — that their teenage girls have no trouble carrying. I stuck with them even though the migration lasted weeks longer than expected, as they decided en route that they couldn't risk going to their lands inside Govind Pashu Vihar national park but had to drive their herd to an unfamiliar meadow.
Photos by Michael Benanav I New York Times News Service
Yasin, 6, a member of the Van Gujjars tribe, herds a water buffalo calf at his family's winter home in the Shivalik Hills of Uttarakhand, India. Like other members of the tribe, the family's world revolves around the care and feeding of their buffaloes, which they view not only as their essential source of livelihood, but also as family members.
The easiest way to get a
glimpse of VanGujjar life is with Sanjeev Mehta, who runs Mohan's Adventure Tours in Haridwar
(mohansadventure.in). His five-hour trips to Rajaji National Park in the
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Shivalik Hills can include visits to Van Gujjar camps.
Tours cost1,950 rupees a person (about $37, at 53 rupees to the dollar) for groups of two or more; solo travelers pay 2,750 rupees(about $52).(The
Bashi, 15, a member of the Van Gujjars tribe, carries a load of leaves for her family's water buffalo herd.
Society for Promotion of
Himalayan Indigenous Activities is not involved in tourism.) Photos of the
2009 spring migration can be foundon my website:
When I returned to the United States, I missed them with a surprising and lingering intensity. I went back to visit in 2010, and was glad to have a chance to see them again this
year). Which is how I came to be hiking up that streambed with Debopam in October.
Catching up After a few miles we reached a hut of sticks, mud and grass. It sat in a clearing surrounded by trees, near a trickling creek, far beyond the reach of power lines, cellphone service and schools. Its one room, with a partial wall separating a mud-hearthed kitchen, sheltered the family of Dhumman, a lanky, bearded tribal leader known for his integrity and fairness, and his wife, Jamila, who manages the household with an eternal sense of hum or, as she delegates tasks to their seven children, ages 6 to 23. Like other members of the tribe, this family's world revolves around the care and feeding of t h ei r b u f faloes, which they view not only as their essential source of live-
c hannel's emphasis on l i v e
lihood — they use and sell the milk — but also as family members. Recently, when their favorite buffalo became sick, some in the family were too worried to eat. We arrived as dusk fell. Only a few of th e children were around, along with a group of buffalo calves. Everyone else was in the jungle, climbing tall sal trees and lopping off leaves for the buffaloes to eat. By the time the rest of the family showed up at the hut, it was dark. Our greetings were warm in a ghostly kind of way — with one dim, battery-powered LED lantern as the only light, I could hear the voices I knew so well, but couldbarely see the faces they belonged to. While two of the daughters cooked dinner, we caught up. The oldest daughter, who had
left an unhappy arranged marriagejustbefore the 2009 migration, still h adn't been able to finalize her divorce: her husband's family was demanding a ridiculous sum of money before they would officially end the marriage, freeing her to wed someone else. I also learned that the previous summer, Jamila had suffered a stroke while the family was in the mountains. The entire right side of her body had become paralyzed. Dhumman managed to hike her out and get her to a rural clinic. Luckily, the treatment she received
their ow n s p ecials, noting comedian Louis C.K.'s "Live "We went back and forth Continued from C1 at the Beacon," which was reThe crowd complied with a and we hashed out a deal," leased digitally in December last-minute request to remove Levy said. "He was really 2011 through C.K.'s website. hats shortly before he went on, nice." It sold for $5, raking in more Levy performed, and he was Since late October, "Crowd than $1 million in sales in a soon heading home to Control" has been in matter of weeks. "I know people sort of go, Los Angeles with tapes r egular r o t ation o n in hand, but "not really AXS TV, available lo- 'Oh, that's the new model,' knowing how to do any cally on the DISH Net- and they mention Louis C.K.," of this," he said. work (channel 362). Levy said. "But Louis C.K. has Editing took about a A recent profile of his own production company. It's not really the same thing, year to complete. Levy Levy in L .A . Weekly "I kept running out quoted Cuban saying you know what I mean? We of money during the editing "Cash is the ultimate live com- were calling cameramen for process, so that's why it took ic. And AXS TV is the ESPN eight hours before the show, so long," he said. There was of music and pop culture, in- trying to set everything up." also an audio problem that cluding live comedy. He is hiThe special ha s o p ened required a month of 12-hour larious and it's a great fit." doors for Levy, he said, leading days to fix. A DVD of the special, with to interviews and bookings for Finally, "I showed it to some bonus bloopers and an addi- shows around the country. people in the industry, and tional 20 minutes of footage, Now, a grateful Levy looks they said, 'You're going to have sells for $20 and is available forward to returning to Bend, to re-edit this. This is too much for purchase through Levy's he said. "I feel a real affection improvisation,'" he said. website, cashlevy.com. for the town. This is the town "I said, 'No, I have to get A lot has changed since that came out and supported this to air with all the impro- Levy, then 40, now 42, per- the experiment, which turned visation, because that's my formed here for the special. out to be such a success. I feel specialty. Otherwise, I'm just His wife, April, was pregnant so appreciative. The crowd a regular, generic, pretty solid with their son, Chance, now was so enthusiastic." "I'm excited to come back 2't~. Both will accompany Levy joke teller." Levy decided to email Mark to Bend, April f ive months and show it to people ...," Levy Cuban, who owns the Dallas pregnant with their next child. said. "Everyone that was at Mavericks and is the founder Levy notes that since he that show is going to see themof HDNet t elevision chan- poured time, money and en- selves at some point ... whether n el, rebranded as AX S T V ergyinto self-producing aspe- I'm talking to them or not." this July. He figured his spe- cial, it's become more common — Reporter: 541-383-0349, cial would fit in well with the for comedians to self-release firstname.lastname@example.org
was effective, and, by the time we saw her over a year later, she hadcompletely recovered.
New threats While we sat on the floor, eating chapatis with hot curry and washing them down with buffalo milk, Dhumman told us that this past spring they'd had no problems migrating to their ancestral meadow inside the national park. The au-
gradually changes with it. And, indeed, the forest was busier than I'd seen it before: more Van Gujjars were driving more motorbikes farther into the jungle than before, and more villagers were out cutting more wood than I'd ever witnessed, making their i ntimidating p r esence f e l t among the nomads. In2009, Dhumman owned the family's est (which is public land) had sole cellphone; now, all of the decided to claim a swath of it older children had them too forthemselves,pressuring the (despite the lack of connectivVan Gujjars who made their ity and the limited opportuniwinter homes there, including ties to charge them); Sharafat, Dhumman's family, to leave who's 19, even had some vidor pay an exorbitant rent. A eos loaded onto his. This was couple of weeks earlier, the an all-new intrusion by the villagers erected barricades in modern world, and it struck the streambed to try to prevent me as a radical one, a puncthe nomads from returning af- ture in the invisible membrane ter their summer in the moun- t hat separates their w o r ld tains. When that didn't stop from ours. the Van Gujjars, the villagers I w ondered what w o u ld threatened to burn their huts happen to the Van Gujjars and use force, if that's what it over the following years: how took, to get the tribespeople long they'd be able to hold on out. So far, Dhumman said, to their life in the forest, how no one had been hurt, and no long they would want to, and homes destroyed. But the Van what their options might be if Gujjars were nervous. Last they were forced,or enticed, I've heard, things are still in to abandon it. As a writer and limbo. photographer drawn to issues And there was yet another facing t r aditional c u ltures, thing on everyone's mind: the I try my best to value them wild elephants that had been without romanticizing them; roaming nearby, which can to appreciate the many ways be quite dangerous. They had that their existence enriches decided to tie up their dog, be- humanity w i t hout w i s hing cause if it saw an elephant it that they'd remain frozen in would attack it, then get hurt time; to see what is incredibly and come running for the hut beautiful about the ways they — with an angry pachyderm live, and what is unimaginin pursuit. ably hard. As the Van Gujjars are increasingly affected by An insulated life the forces of modernity, and One thing I l o v e a b out adapt to them — or fail to — I spending time with my forest- just hope that they have more dwelling friends is that it feels rather than less control over as if I've entered an alternate their destiny. universe where t elevisions, I could spend only three computers and malls are part nights with Dhumman's famof some hazy dream. Accord- ily this time, but it was enough ing to the anthropologist Per- to get another taste of a way of nille Gooch, Van Gujjars have life that leaves me awe-struck, long said that they live "behind to track some of its changes the veil of the forest," which and, most important, to reconkeeps them insulated from the nect personally with people rest of the world. But this veil I cared for. Our goodbye was is growing ever thinner as In- like a heartfelt "see you latdia changes around them and er," since we knew we surely their traditional way of living would.
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The Bulletin Daily print edition for Sunday December 23, 2012