Review: My Husband And Other Animals 2 by Janaki Lenin
Janaki Lenin’s quarter century of adventures with her snake man-husband Rom Whitaker first recorded in My Husband & Other Animals gets better with this sequel. In her trademark irreverent style she recounts tales from the animal world; tales that are unlikely to cross an average mind – animal lover or not.
Lenin’s stories – most published as newspaper columns – are not always about the four-legged. As Whitaker points out in his introductory note to the book, “In the best tradition of the Indian snack called mixture, this collection has equal parts of the whimsical, serious, tragic, and hilarious.”
No surprise then that the book is not structured into neat sections. After reading the first few chapters, one gets used to the candid yet arbitrary portraits - of elephants, snakes, tigers or (human) grandmothers - in quick succession. The stories take the reader back to Gerald Durrell’s classic My Family and Other Animals – the obvious reference in the title helping a little.
Lenin has had to deal with issues that wouldn’t have crossed Durrell’s mind. Contemporary issues that occupy the mindspace of perhaps solely those living in the Asian subcontinent – such as “why do men rape?” and is it fair to compare such deviant behaviour with animalkind? Not that rape is an alien concept elsewhere in the world, but our routine insensitive handling of such cases makes the violence more brutal.
This is also Lenin’s best researched chapter. She turns a tweet by megastar Amitabh Bachchan following the Nirbhaya gang rape case on its head. “Even an animal would not behave so,” Bachchan had tweeted in December 2012.
Lenin argues that rape occurs across the animal world from scorpion flies and garter snakes to ducks, geese, bottlenose dolphins and primates. She delves into the psycho-social reasons for committing rape in both the animal and human worlds, wondering if rape is a male sexual strategy to get around a shortage.
“The smaller chaps have nothing going for them. Not only don’t they have the physique, but they also don’t have a territory to call their own. No orang female will give them the time of day. So instead of howling, these smaller chaps go prowling for sex,” she writes.
Yet only 0.2 per cent of copulations observed in the wild are coerced. Even among male chimps, who are known to be violent, forced sex is infrequent with females averting copulations with males they don’t like.
Lenin badgers Bachchan’s tweet hollow: “So Amitabh Bachchan may be right; there’s no conclusive evidence that animals, other than humans, are sadistic.”
Unabashedly, she opens up about her own life, writing of how she met Rom, 27 years her senior. She is not apologetic about marrying him and clearly enjoys shocking social conservatives. “She (a well-meaning woman) was shocked. She had jumped to the conclusion that Rom and I had been seeing each other from the time I was fifteen. I didn’t say anything for a few moments. Oh yes, I was evil, all right.”
It is impossible to contain a grin while reading Lenin. On her first meeting with Rom, she writes, “I had an infection near a fingernail...and someone else advised my mother that sticking a whole lemon on it would quicken the (healing) process. So I wore a citrus on my finger...”
She observes the animal world to find answers to our society’s gendered existence. It’s a shame that animals often appear more evolved. In “Should I stay or should I go?” she forces the readers to think about why women have to leave home. She compares homo sapiens to various other species such as orangutans – their daughters stay back while the sons move out. No points for guessing then that if she were a part of a non-human primate society, she would have opted to stay home while her brother would have had to find another troop.
Lenin’s obsession with animal poop is fascinating, disgusting and intriguing all at once -- a fixation Rom warns readers about in the introduction. Her argument on why excreta is important for animals is convincing and she mentions her dog Koko, who loved devouring her own poop due to a mineral deficiency, hatchling iguanas eating their mother’s poop, and rabbits and hares too. Indeed, the list of animals engaging in this behaviour might be too long for those who think only pigs eat poop.
Lenin shines the torch on animal life much better than many volumes by experts. Whether it is about snakes and their personalities, about butterflies and lizards or about cats and crocodiles, her first-hand experience with animals – those living with the couple and those they meet on their travels to exotic lands – pack in more facts than the average book on animals.
She is also unforgiving in her keenness to condition average beings to perceive the animal world like she does. Sample this: Does the growth of the broiler chicken industry help increase the number of jungle fowl? Do civet cats get headaches when the coffee season is over? How does one find out if a venomous snake is a Type A personality? If the point of sex is procreation, why has evolution not weeded out non-productive sex? Or is same-sex behavior merely a response to a short supply of one gender?
The scoop on snake oil merchants is quite an eye-opener and the reader then wonders why there is such hullabaloo over confiscated consignments of venom.
Read more: Books that take you into the wild
A few years ago, Lenin wrote, in her 100th column for The Hindu newspaper, of how she was lectured for disrespecting her husband in the title of the column (“My husband and other animals”). Unapologetic, she defends the title saying human beings may think they are superior as they have a culture, a language, can empathise, and are spiritual, but that there is enough proof to show that animals are not inferior.
Lenin’s writing is intelligent and endearing and also answers the mother of all questions: Who is more intelligent - dogs or cats? This work is indeed an Indian “mixture” - spicy and tangy – and makes you hungry for Part 3.