Not your typical travel narrative
Read in Ned | March 22, 2018
By Jay Mann
It is often said that reading opens up new worlds. Worlds that range from the distant past (historical fiction) to the future (science fiction) — from the actual world (natural history) to imaginary ones (fantasy). As I’ve pointed out before, many people are averse to fantasy and science fiction. But I believe that their appeal is that we can still identify with the character(s) if their inner world(s) are portrayed well.
Travel literature is a popular genre that explores worlds different from the one most of us experience day-to-day. I imagine that its popularity was originally due to the fact that the large majority of people couldn’t afford to travel. The published accounts of Lewis and Clark’s expedition as well as Mark Twain’s travel stories were huge best sellers. Nowadays a lot of people read travel literature for ideas on where to take their next trip.
Our book group here at the library recently read Michael Benanav’s Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals – and an Ancient Way of Life. It is not your typical travel narrative. Michael is a writer and photographer for the New York Times. In this book he joins a tribe of nomadic water buffalo herders in India – the Van Gujjars – as they migrate between their winter grounds and the foothills of the Himalayas.
The families are so large that multiple family trees are included in the book; pictures of everyone helps individualize them. Because they are totally dependent on their buffalo herds, they need as many bodies as possible. As a result, their marriage system resembles musical chairs. A person generally doesn’t leave their family unit until someone else can replace them. Two families might swap members that each marry into the other family. Or it could be a more complicated swap between several families.
Counterintuitively, the Van Gujjars’ lifestyle is threatened by the creation of National Parks in India. The parks often prohibit people from living within their borders. The book dips into the politics and history of native rights. It also explores how priorities vary at the national, provincial, and individual level. A ranger who makes the final determination at the entrance to a park might not be averse to supplementing his salary a bit.
The book’s imagery and language give you a clear idea of what day-to -life is like. Referring to the bells that the animals wore, “Quickly-changing rhythms and perpetually shifting tones wove in and out of one another… it seemed it was the ringing of the bells that kept the caravan in motion — as though propelled forward by a gentle current that couldn’t be seen or felt, only heard.” The animals are treated as members of the family.
We were fortunate to chat with the author via Skype at the end of our book discussion (I pulled some strings — I knew him from when I lived in Dixon, New Mexico). One question that was asked was what he got out of the trip. He replied that it wasn’t an epiphany for him – that he had traveled too much for that — but that for him, the most meaningful part of it was the genuine interactions he had with the families.
The pace of our cultural evolution seems to be speeding up. This book provides a rare glimpse into a culture that has managed to preserve its identity in a shifting world.
Jay Mann is the Director of the Nederland Community Library.