Day by day, the families moved up the Yamuna valley. Around them rose the Himalayas' burly foothills, which would be mountains in their own right in just about any other part of the world. As they walked the road, contouring around the curves of the canyon, the river usually flowed on their left, perhaps ten feet below them, perhaps a hundred. High above, terraced fields of millet, wheat, hemp and some vegetables clung to slopes so steep and rocky, they looked like they might slide right off.
Dhumman had come up with a plan that would hopefully avert disaster for his family if they really couldn’t get permission to go to their traditional meadow. He'd managed to connect with a friend, named Kasim, who had been evicted from Rajaji National Park and forced to settle - but who had not yet relinquished the papers to his summer pasture, which didn’t fall inside any national parks. He gave Dhumman a copy of his documents and invited him to use the land, if he needed to, at a place called Kanasar. Dhumman still hoped to be able to go to his own territory, above a village named Gangar, as Kasim's meadow was much further, higher, more remote, and totally unfamiliar to him (though Yusuf had been there once before). Besides, he knew he wasn’t officially allowed to take his buffaloes there, which meant he’d have to risk going, then seeing if he could cut a deal with the local ranger to let his family stay there for the season.
For the first week of travel past Kalsi, the route to their summer pasture at Gangar overlapped with the route to Kanasar. But at the village of Naugaon, the ways diverged, with Dhumman’s usual route forking to the left, toward the Tons River, while the Kanasar route forked to the right, toward the mountains between the sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri and Gangotri. They needed to decide which way they were going to go by the time they reached Naugaon, yet wanted to keep their options open as long as possible. Dhumman tried to get daily updates on negotiations with the Forest Department, calling other Van Gujjars and the SOPHIA office on his cell phone to see if anyone had any news.
A palpable sense of suspense grew within the family as each day brought them closer to the fork in the road. It felt like a clock was ticking in the background, marking the hours until a major decision would have to be made. But on the surface, life on the migration looked more or less as it always did.
Every morning, the families were up and moving well before daybreak. Dhumman, Mir Hamza, and Bashi, along with Yusuf, a couple of his sons, and maybe Mustooq (a nephew of Dhumman and Yusuf) would start off in the darkness with the buffaloes, which walk more slowly than the pack animals. Meanwhile Jamila, Roshni, and the rest of their family loaded everything on the bulls and horses, and followed. Eventually, the caravan would catch up with the buffalo herd and, often, everyone would arrive together at their next camp.
The earlier they could get off the road, the better: the greatest danger to life and limb was automobile traffic, which became heavier as the morning progressed. Some days, reaching the spot where they would spend the night did little to improve their safety, as they camped on the skinny shoulder of the highway – cooking, eating, and sleeping dangerously close to speeding cars and trucks.
The jobs that each person did on any given day were flexible; some roles were determined by gender, but many weren’t. Men and women together milked and herded buffaloes, hauled or lopped fodder, gathered firewood, loaded and led the pack animals, and shopped for supplies in the markets in the towns they passed through. Women generally did the cooking and were the primary caregivers for the young children – but men were demonstratively affectionate with the little ones, too. And, while fathers have the highest status in the family structure, the women weren’t shy about speaking their minds and telling the men what they thought. In some significant ways, gender relations among Van Gujjars defy common stereotypes about Muslim cultures, and are more liberal than many non-Muslim Indian communities.
For instance, the only time in her life that a Van Gujjar woman wears a veil is at her wedding ceremony. According to anthropologist Pernille Gooch, the women even have a saying that shows how they perceive the symbol of the veil: “Just because you wear a veil for your wedding doesn’t mean your husband can tie it around your neck.” What’s more, unlike many Islamic cultures, in which men may take up to four wives, Van Gujjar men have only one at a time. And women can divorce their husbands without bringing shame upon themselves or their family, and without being stigmatized or socially outcast by the community.
In fact, Apa had only recently returned to her family-of-origin after leaving her husband, with whom she was deeply unhappy. Like most Van Gujjar unions, hers was arranged by her parents and was part of a larger marriage deal between families. Since, as a rule, women go to live with their husband’s family, when a daughter leaves her parents, it creates a gaping hole in that family’s labor force. As a result, marriages are often arranged as exchanges, so as a girl from Family A marries into Family B, a girl from Family B is married into Family A; in Apa’s situation, she was promised to a certain boy as part of a multi-faceted deal, the main goal of which was to get a new wife for one of Dhumman and Yusuf’s brothers, who was a widower. Being single is not an option for Van Gujjars, as the amount of work it takes to survive in the forest is too onerous for one person alone. If you can't maintain your own household, you move in to a family member's dera.
It’s not uncommon for marriage exchanges to involve a complicated arithmetic of boys and girls or men and women between two families. And it’s not unusual for children to be married – though a girl who is married at a very young age will stay with her own family until her late teens or early twenties, when she’s deemed old enough to leave home.
Love matches, though, are not unheard of. Sometimes when a man or a woman knows that they’ve been betrothed by their parents to someone not to their taste, he or she may try to run off with someone else who they find more appealing before the scheduled wedding day. This is how Dhumman and Jamila came together. He’d been widowed in his twenties and she was set to marry someone else, but when they met, they fell for each other instantly and eloped. Such behavior is frowned upon since it throws the entire, larger marriage exchange between families into chaos – but it’s also understood, and once what’s done is done, the illicit wedding is usually accepted by the parents of the bride and groom. The soap-opera-like intrigue around engagements and weddings and elopements and divorces is, naturally, a hot topic for gossip and one of the Van Gujjars' main diversions.
Many arranged marriages encounter substantial turbulence, and it’s fairly common for women to return to their own families for periods of time. When this happens, the effects often ripple out beyond the couple itself. In Apa’s case, for instance, the wife of her brother, Mir Hamza, happened to be her husband’s sister. Since Apa returned to her family, her husband’s sister was recalled by her own family to compensate for the loss of labor. So Mir Hamza had to do without his wife, possibly until Apa officially settles her divorce.
Unfortunately for her, divorces, whether initiated by husband or wife, must be mutually agreed upon, which – in her case – gives her husband the elephant’s share of the leverage. Knowing that she can’t re-marry until the split is finalized, her husband’s family demanded an exorbitant sum of money to sign off on it. While negotiations dragged on, Apa was stuck in limbo, unwilling to return to a husband she disliked, yet unable to take a new one and start a family of her own. For their parts, Dhumman and Jamila both felt terrible about how things worked out for their daughter, and seemed committed to letting her choose her next husband. As soon as she gets the chance.
Apa’s husband belonged to one of those families that had been evicted from Rajaji National Park and settled in one of villages the Uttarakhand government had built for them, called Gandikhatta. Since she had gone to live there, she had missed the previous two spring migrations, and was thrilled to be heading up to the mountains once again. Summers in the lowlands were unbearably hot, and “living in the village is like being in prison,” she said.
It’s not unusual nowadays for matches to be made between forest families and village families, though these are often problematic. When wives move from village to forest, they struggle with the physical demands of life in the wilderness; village life is simply easier, and a settled women who is married off to a forest dwelling husband rarely has the strength or the skills that her new life requires. Aside from feeling, at least for a time, like she’s been exiled to a jungle labor camp, she may also feel useless, like she isn’t being helpful to her husband’s family. Even worse is when her mother-in-law agrees.
On the other hand, when women move from the forest to a village, as Apa did, they often chafe under the constraints of settled life. They have far more freedom in the wilderness, partly by virtue of the equality of the work they do, and partly because the forest really does serve as a veil, allowing them to live with a greater sense of autonomy and privacy than is possible in the village communities, where more people live more closely together and where more conservative religious beliefs have taken root.
Traditionally, Van Gujjars practiced a loose interpretation of Islam. Not long ago, they were also known to believe that ‘Allah’ was just a name, and that God and Nature were synonymous. Very few knew the Koran, and prayer was performed sporadically. This wasn’t because they were ideological rebels or lazy worshippers – they just didn’t live near any mosques and had no religious instruction, so their faith was shaped by what made sense in their world.
Things first started to change in the 1990’s. As the Van Gujjars’ struggle to stay in Rajaji National Park shined in the media spotlight, this group of forest dwellers became much better known, and mainstream Muslim preachers made contact with them, sometimes even going into the forest to teach them more about their religion.
Once the Van Gujjars from Rajaji were settled in villages, they were easy to access, and conservative imams went in. Mosques were built with outside money, and Van Gujjars, who wanted to be good Muslims, attended prayers and sermons. Some became convinced that they needed to eat meat on certain holidays, despite their own traditions against it and their personal distaste for it. And, gradually, some of the freedoms that Van Gujjar women enjoyed in the forest have began to erode – including how they are expected to act and dress in the presence of men from outside the family - though they still don’t veil their faces.
Some of the conservative ideas and attitudes taught in the villages have filtered into the forest dwelling families, particularly around devotional practices, but the realities and isolation of life there have softened their impact somewhat.
For Apa, a combination of factors contributed to her joy at being on her way up to Himalayas for the first time in two years: being away from her husband and his family; being out of the confines of the village; and being back with her family, including her favorite cousins. But perhaps most of all, she simply loved their summer camp. It was where she was happiest in the world. As each day traveling up the Yamuna passed with no good news, she just hoped that they’d be allowed to go there.