BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, January 2018
All the Van Gujjar tribe wants is to maintain their ancient way of life. For centuries, the forest-dwelling, nomadic Indian tribe has spent winters in the jungle and summers in the Himalayas, where the water buffalo they herd find abundant food and a break from blazing heat. But in recent years, the country’s national park system has challenged their way of life. People aren’t meant to live in preserved lands, the park system argues. The Van Gujjars should stay out.
That tension is central to Himalaya Bound, in which writer and photographer Michael Benanav recounts one Van Gujjar family’s 2009 migration from the forests to the mountains. Benanav spent 44 days alongside the family as they traveled 125 miles and encountered 11,000 feet of elevation gain—by foot.
The days are long and, in many ways, simple as the tribe presses toward its destination. But there’s dramatic tension at the heart of the journey. Will the family be able to summer in its ancestral land, in what is now Rajaji National Park? Or will officials hold true to their word and ban the tribe?
As Benanav describes his experience traversing these miles, he offers a deeper understanding of the family’s troubles. India isn’t alone in questioning the notion of people in national parks; America has done the same, also challenging indigenous peoples’ right to their tribal lands. The argument is often made in the name of conservation. But as Benanav reveals, the relationships between humans, land and animals aren’t quite so easily explained.
Benanav deftly weaves scientific and historic context into the story of one family and one migration. As he does, he also shares an American’s perspective of this radically different way of life. The result is a compelling, thoughtful tale that encourages readers to examine their lives and impact upon the earth.