In 2009, writer and photographer Michael Benanav embedded with a family of Van Gujjars, a tribe of nomadic water buffalo herders in northern India, to accompany them on their annual spring migration from the Shivalik foothills into the Himalayas.
For centuries this has been the way of life for the Van Gujjars — following the seasons and caring for their buffaloes, whose milk accounts for their primary income. But in light of recent government policy, it’s getting harder for them to maintain their traditional way of life.
The twist is that it’s not loss of habitat that’s threatening the Van Gujjars, many of whom have settled in villages. It’s protection of habitat. As their ancestral lands are set aside for preservation with all good environmental intention, even the Van Gujjars are not allowed onto them. This confounding (though wholly precedented) scenario becomes one of Benanav’s primary interests in “Himalaya Bound.”
At its core the issue is how we conceive of nature: as necessarily separate from humans, or as bound up with those who have shaped it. The intuitive sense of the former is a legacy of Western thinking that spread to places such as India in the 20th century and has only recently begun to be challenged on the level of policy.
This debate is playing out as Benanav arrives in the Shivaliks, as it will for much of the journey. The family is forced to trek not knowing if when it arrives it will be allowed entrance to its traditional grazing lands. At stake is not just the year’s migration but the future of the family and the tribe’s way of life.
Over the course of the trek, Benanav becomes a contributing member of their party rather than an outside observer. His closeness with the family takes the book beyond the anthropological.
But Benanav pays a price for this intimacy. In one harrowing moment involving an injured calf, it prevents him from taking the photographs he knows a reporter would take. It also explains his irritating tic of referring to his travel companions almost exclusively as “my friends.”
Benanav’s overeagerness to establish his connection to the family distracts at times from their story. “Himalaya Bound” is at its best when it’s about the Van Gujjars, not the author’s feelings toward them.
Thankfully, on balance, the book is a tender and timely portrait.
Scott F. Parker is a writer and critic in Montana.
By: Michael Benanav.
Publisher: Pegasus Books, 230 pages, $26.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Feb. 21, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.