The view from the meadow was staggering. To the north, the gleaming, snow-clad Bandarpunch massif, some 20,700 feet (6316 meters) high, filled the panorama. Below it, a river tumbled through a dramatic canyon with waterfalls cascading down its walls. Alpine grasslands surrounded the camp and unfurled around the side of a mountain, laced with fresh streams and fringed by evergreen forests.
After unloading the animals, the families went to inspect the two tattered huts that stood there, which Kasim’s family hadn’t used in a couple of years. The larger one had a solid frame of logs and tree limbs, but needed some substantial repairs. Just like any family might when moving into a fixer-upper, this one lingered inside, imagining what the kitchen would look like when it was finished - in this case, how they'd rebuild the hearth with mud and rocks, sculpting in some shelving to hold their cookware. But the first priorities were rebuilding the walls - which had gaping holes - and the roof - which had bare rafters. Once it was renovated, Dhumman's family would move into it.
The smaller hut, its manure-packed floor proof that it had been used to shelter buffaloes at some point in the past, was more intact, needing just a bit of roof repair and a good cleaning inside. Too little for a whole family, Gamee and Akloo and their two kids would live in it.
Yusuf's family would have to build their own hut from the ground up, which caused some grumbling among his sons, since they would be expected to do the bulk of the work on what would be a major construction job.
For now, however, both families would continue living under sheets of plastic. They quickly got to work setting up their tents, collecting firewood, and hauling water, preparing for lunch and for any weather that might move in. Giant plumes of cumulus swept over the meadow like a fluid shroud of clouds, white and grey and gold, sometimes fraying just enough for beams of sunlight or views of the mountains to flash through.
Despite the meadow's Shangri-La-like setting, something just didn't feel right. After forty tough days on the trail, their brief moment of triumph at reaching their goal faded into a palpable mood of disappointment.
Sitting beneath the lip of the tent, brewing a pot of chai, Apa summed it up: "It is more beautiful here than at Gangar, where we usually go," she said, "but it isn't our home." It was much colder here, she continued, and higher, and there was so much work to be done before they could even move into the hut. It felt strange to be so far from a village in the summertime - and especially from the villagers whose families had been friends with her family for generations. "I love it there." She paused. "This just doesn't feel like home."
Of course, everyone was also exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the journey. Now that the migration was over, it started to sink in a little bit.
What's more, one member of the family was missing. The fate of the injured calf, who'd been abandoned down below, was weighing on everyone's mind.
But Dhumman and Yusuf hadn't forgotten about it. And they had a plan:
That evening, two of Yusuf's sons retreated down the mountain to spend the night with the calf. Early the next morning, Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and two more of Yusuf's sons went to meet them. When they reached the wounded yearling, they lashed her to two poles cut from slender tree trunks. With two in front and two behind, they hoisted the litter onto their shoulders and carried the animal back up and over the pass. It was a labor worthy of Hercules. The buffalo was so heavy and the trail so steep that the men had to work on a rotation system, allowing some to rest their backs while others carried. A few times, they simply had to stop, lay the yearling down, and catch their breath before continuing on.
They weren’t doing this because the yearling was worth much financially; they did it because they love their buffaloes. They did it out of the intrinsic sense of responsibility they have for their animals. They did it because they are Van Gujjars.
Hours later, upon reaching the meadow, the yearling was clearly relieved to be back on the ground. With a little bit of help, she stood, and even hobbled a few ginger steps. By the time they would descend in the fall, Dhumman said, her broken bone should be healed enough for her to walk down to the lowland jungles on her own four feet.
Heartened by the success of the rescue mission, grateful to have their baby buffalo back with them, a wave of optimism rippled through the camp. Perhaps their luck had turned the corner and they would have a good summer after all.
After such a physically strenuous and emotionally nervewracking journey, people were tired. Reflecting on the migration, Dhumman and Jamila both took a big-picture perspective. Their future, as best as they could see, looked like it would be awash in anxieties.
Like most Van Gujjars, they had always wholeheartedly rejected the idea of leaving the forest and settling in a village. They would lose too many things that they loved in their lives, from their sense of freedom to their intimate connection to the natural world to their herds of buffaloes. Their friend, Mullah Noor Alam, whose family had been evicted from Rajaji National Park and settled in the village of Gandikhatta, explained it this way: “In order to be Van Gujjar, you must live in the forest, keep buffalo, and take them to the mountains in summer. We don’t do any of that; we are not Van Gujjars anymore.” “Sometimes,” he continued, “I remember the freedom of the forest. Here, you have to be more diplomatic, more careful, where in the forest we were behind a curtain, so we could be ourselves. But I’ve adjusted, and now that I’m here I feel I should just accept it and not remember the old life.”
Despite how much they cherished their nomadic way of life, Dhumman and Jamila were having second thoughts about it. All sense of security had evaporated from their world. They didn’t know what would happen next year: perhaps they’d be able to return to Gangar, or perhaps they’d be barred from Uttarakhand completely. This lack of stability, with disaster as likely an outcome as survival, drove them to conclude that if the government offered them a deal to leave the forest and settle, they would probably accept it.
Their preference, they agreed, would be to stay in the wilderness, if they could move freely and easily like they once did, without threats by the Forest Department. But with that looking less and less like the kind of future they imagined, and their survival in the balance, they had to be realistic. “Settling in a village, sure, we would lose a lot,” Jamila said. “But at least we would know where we are.” As much of a reluctant compromise as that would be, it was also something of a fantasy, since no one had ever offered them any kind of deal at all – and it didn’t look like anyone would. The park authorities wanted to ban them from their meadows, but weren't interested in giving them any kind of compensation at all.
Apa, the only one in the family with actual experience living in a village, still resisted the whole idea. “Our people have been going to the mountains forever,” she said. “We’ve always done this. Gangar is our home! No one should be able to stop us from going there.”
What would they do next year? “Where it is written, we will go,” Jamila said. She meant “by Allah,” but could have been talking about the Forest Department.