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Sunday, Aug 25, 2019

Review: Animal Intimacies by Radhika Govindrajan

Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies looks at the distinct fellowship between humans and animals in the mountain villages of Uttarakhand

books Updated: Jul 19, 2019 19:31 IST
Sudhirendar Sharma
Sudhirendar Sharma
Hindustan Times
A woman leading cattle through the hills of Kumaon in Uttarakhand.
A woman leading cattle through the hills of Kumaon in Uttarakhand.(LightRocket via Getty Images)
         
327pp, Rs 599; Penguin
327pp, Rs 599; Penguin

Intro: Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies looks at the distinct fellowship between humans and animals in the mountain villages of Uttarakhand


It is unlikely that anyone would now value a pigeon as a pet since the ubiquitous bird has become a despised pest. But this notion can change if the public knows more about experiments using the birds to collect information about air quality. This may eventually repair the strained relationship and facilitate a fresh engagement with the birds. Such possibilities that help build new sensitivities about fellow creatures are worth exploring.

Based on extensive ethnographic research in the mountain villages of Uttarakhand, Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies explores multiple aspects of interspecies co-existence and assigns new meanings to intimacies with domestic and wild animals. The book captures the recursive play between the life and death of goats, dogs, cows, pigs and bears in relation to mountain households. These stories of goat sacrifice, cow love, monkey hooliganism, and bear sex are grounded in the recognition that each needs the other to survive and even thrive. Even in the otherness of the species there is a moral and ethical underpinning that defines interspecies care and reciprocity, which extends the narrow domain of such interactions beyond conventional man-animal conflict.

Relatedness is the key that holds together the stories in Animal Intimacies. Drawing heavily on Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, Govindrajan frames interspecies relations as kin-like, which provides distinctive ways of defining the intensity of such relationships in the mountains. Even the narrative of the bear engaging women in sex is not without a sense of kinship, where each relates to the other through their shared desire for pleasure. The bear becomes the metaphor to critique the marginality of women and the denial of female sexuality.

Animal Intimacies provides lively reportage on life in mountain villages, where interaction with domesticated cattle and encounters with wild animals constitute a part of daily existence. Within the knotty nature of multispecies relatedness Govindrajan, who is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, discovers the common experience of inequality and exploitation that has contributed to a distinct fellowship between humans and animals. Is the shared history of neglect and exclusion the cause for multispecies kinship in the mountains? Each story provides insights on how people perceive and relate to different animals and gives the reader a greater understanding of interspecies equilibrium.

Radhika Govindrajan
Radhika Govindrajan ( Courtesy the publisher )

In recent years, two notable externalities - the right-wing political project on cow protection and the translocation of monkeys from the plains to the mountains – have disrupted this equilibrium, which the local population finds hard to negotiate. The presence of stray cattle and the hooliganism of dislocated monkeys has strained interspecies relationships. As hordes of people abandon their land and migrate to urban centres in search of a livelihood, the everyday forms of relatedness have taken a beating. This is a loss to humans and to animals who are stripped of their agency.

Through stories of interspecies interconnections based on empathy and love Govindrajan constructs the fleeting possibility of another world. She doesn’t render animals as a symbolic foil but as subjects whose agency, intention, and capacity for emotion is critical in their potential to dilute the impact of humans as a geological force. The urgency of developing kinship with other species has never been more compelling than in this period of the Anthropocene, when the natural world is being destroyed.

Read more: Review: Immortal for a Moment by Natasha Badhwar

Written with style and scholarship, the stories in Animal Intimacies provide fresh insights on the variety of human-non-human interactions. Radhika Govindrajan’s immensely readable book lends credence to the notion that an understanding of the relatedness of animals and humans will strengthen the possibility of creating refuges for both.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

First Published: Jul 19, 2019 19:30 IST

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