Aliya Tuzhilin '17: Pahadi Ecosystems

Aliya Tuzhilin is the 2017-2019 Shansi Fellow at Jagori Grameen. This is her second year narrative.

One of my favorite places around Rakkar is tucked away behind the very last hotel on the very last road through the village.  It is a path between a gorge, meandering along side the Manuni Khad (Manuni river), that curves through a series of foothills before the Dhauladhar Mountains.  Walking along this path has always felt to me like a journey to something greater.  Who knows what kind of adventures and challenges I would encounter if I followed it to the end.  The secret here is that it must be traversed by foot.  At this pace, you fall into the right rhythm to feel the vast power of the mountains, to spot camouflaged animals on their slopes, and to stop and pay your respects at the tiny mandirs (temples) to the Mata, the goddess Durga.  Every time I pass these mandirs, I remember how my own grandmother, who was Bengali, would invoke Durga each time we set off from her home in New Delhi to ours in New York.  It's a small thing, but this little connection suddenly seems to bring me and the Gaddis, the local Shephard tribe, into a shared lineage.

A view of the hills unfolds as we enter the gorge

A mata mandir (temple to Ma Durga)

As much as I am drawn to this place, I must recognise its complex ecosystem.  It is nature's haven, still ruled by winds and wild Himalayan Griffins.  Unless you know where to look, there are no easy rain shelters to escape to.  Amidst this are the local Pahadi (mountain) people - Gaddi shepherds, cattle pastoralists, and other communities who have devoted their lives to work and worship in the great Himalayas.  In many ways, they are the custodians of nature and participants in her great dance.  However, even here the inescapable concerns of humans enter, taking the form of private hydropower projects and the extraction of raw materials for wholesale.  These market forces have not spared the Pahadi people, who for all their respect for and interdependence with nature have also recognized that civilization can very quickly outpace them.  They have been ensnared in global markets since the time of slate mining under British colonial rule.  And still the hydropower project demands more labor!  Thus, migrants from other states, of various identities, language groups and cultures, are invited in to this ecosystem to help build and maintain the mighty infrastructure that manages Rakkar’s electricity and water - most likely with their bare hands.  These migrants leave their homes and local cultures in search of opportunities to earn decent wages through their labor.  They travel from place to place wherever the flow of money has created some need for construction, tourist services, or domestic labor.  I get the feeling that these migrants might not want to fall in love with this path, yet they too will not deny its power. 

A Gaddi shepherd walking behind his herd as he leaves for the day

This is the cutest photo ever taken in Rakkar!  Captured by my friend, Lea Greis

It seems to me, each time, that it is some mysterious sleight-of-hand by which I land up in this ecosystem with its delicate forces at play.  While there are many distinctions between migrants and locals, at some level both have been brought to this path by circumstances beyond their control.  Their lives are inherently intertwined with this place and this hybrid culture belongs to all of them.  Some people feel blessed, some feel less so, but they are there for the foreseeable future.  I, on the other hand, decided one morning to go for a walk with my friend Lea and see where it would take us.  The moment I entered into the gorge I was stunned.  It was like I had suddenly found that free mountain spirit of adventure and self-reliance that underlaid the culture in the village of Rakkar.  I wanted to walk for miles and hoped that the path would carry on infinitely.  However, as much as I loved this place, there was a moment where I realized something about it that was beyond my grasp.  I remember sitting with Lea and watching a griffin circling its nest around 3pm, when all of a sudden people started to emerge from all over.  Uncles with small herds of goats started down the mountain and clusters of people came from the side of the hydropower project.  Rain clouds were enclosing on us all and we realized it was time to go.  Most of the uncles were mildly amused to see the two of us sitting there, and as we got up to leave, Lea and I joined them.  We went at our own pace, chatting amongst ourselves as we walked along.  Some people looked at us a little suspiciously, probably feeling like we signaled a shift in the balance of their ecosystem, but on the whole, I felt like we found our pace. 

 

Finding your pace within such complex and deeply situated ecosystems is the most difficult thing about coming to Rakkar.  If you really want to live and work here, you have to find a way to honestly live amongst people who you will never quite be like.  However, you can always find ways to connect with people on a deeper level through mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s pace - regardless of whether or not your identity gives you a shared lineage with them.  Learning how to do that is the most rewarding thing about my time living here in the beautiful and perplexing village of Rakkar. 

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