All the work and no glory: Women in rural India. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)
All the work and no glory: Women in rural India. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Review: Patriarchy and the Pangolin by Aditi Patil

An unapologetically droll account of an agroforestry field research project involving trees, sundry creatures, and the Indian male
By Sonali Mujumdar
PUBLISHED ON APR 16, 2021 10:13 PM IST
206pp, ₹399; Hachette
206pp, ₹399; Hachette

There are no real pangolins in Aditi Patil’s book, Patriarchy and the Pangolin. There are metaphoric ones and plenty of blatant patriarchy. The book references a symbolic parallel between the two. The world’s most trafficked non-human mammal, harmless to men, is most threatened by man himself. Just as patriarchy, the prevalent mindset in the country is a menace to the socioeconomic fabric of our society. Ergo, the book’s sardonic tagline: “A field guide to Indian men and other species”. Patil, who has worked on diverse conservation projects with WWF India and Columbia University, wrote the book as “an entertaining account of two female researchers who set off to interview farmers who grew trees alongside their crops”. The book is a rollicking narration of the result and repercussions of a six month field work project to study agroforestry practices in parts of Gujarat, conducted by a three-member team headed by the writer. One would scarcely associate a book involving the dry act of data collection and research methodology and its findings to make for entertaining reading, but Patil gives it her funny spin.

In August 2017, Patil, along with fellow ecological researchers, Manya Singh and Praful Joshi, travelled across Gujarat, encountering a wide spectrum of experiences with flora and fauna, but the most education came from their various rendezvous and run-ins with the human race, largely men. Instances of the collective patriarchal psyche abound in the book. For instance, while in Anand, they are offered “help” by the son of the sarpanch in Chikhodra village in Anand who pronounces: “I have the biggest house in Chikhodra and I will ask 10 village men to come to my house. You need not trouble yourself and venture into the village on your own.” Or in Gir, at a meeting with the “Leader of Sasan”, Anand Patel, where only the male member of the team is introduced to him. Patil labels Patel as the local Indian politician who is the “gratuitously conspicuous antithesis of womanhood”. Efforts to try and seek an audience with the women working in the fields in most places are met with incomprehension. When given a chance to voice their opinions, the “women seemed to have a more holistic approach to agroforestry, farms, animals and life in general.” Patil repeatedly faces the unsurprising situations of women taking a back seat in the farming process, stringently playing restrictive traditional roles that keep them within home and hearth. Their voicelessness is what irks her the most. Because when they do speak, and have the power to act, theirs is a more coherent, meaningful voice, she notes. Rani in Chorwad, who thinks of the first 25 years of her life as the worst ones, not being allowed to study and married off, is happy to take care of her coconut farm after the death of her husband, a drunk “man-child” who yelled at her. That first part is the story of countless women in this country. “Then she told us all about the farm, its area, the number of coconut trees on it, the buyers for her coconuts, their rates. Everything.” Lakshmi of the Warli tribe, in Lachhakdi village in Navsari district, exudes “the contentment that comes from a sense of inner peace” and is resolutely clear that what she needs instead of Government policies or subsidies, is the right over her land, which is under threat due to the lofty bullet train project of the government. Patil puts in a strong word for the marginalised, including Dalit farmers.

She repeatedly fumes at the red tapism, apathy and the lack of communication at the most basic levels especially with government officials. The most evolved form of stonewalling comes from the hallowed corridors and offices of babudom. Patil not only delights in training her guns at a particular brand of conduct that is prevalent in government offices, but indulges in her habitual verbosity to describe even the decor. At the Junagadh Forest Department office, where they are to meet PK Mathur, the forest officer, she observes, “The area this single gent occupies for a few hours each day, five-and-a-half days per week, would be about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in Mumbai housing a whole clan seven days a week. Portraits and photographs of top predators in the current political food chain line the walls of these government offices. The photos change within seconds of the predators changing.” In fact, the most searing commentary in the book is reserved for the government du jour and its policies and ideologies, whether it is acts of hubris like the demonetisation move or the special status accorded to the sacred cow. “Symbol of Nationalism, Mother of all Indians, Queen of Urine, Depositor of Dung, Her Highness the Holy Ur-Cow which hung around on the street, millions of clones of whom, now that a cow-protection regime was in power, wandered unworshipped on all our streets and in greater numbers than ever before.”

Patil’s biggest weapon in her arsenal is humour, and she takes potshots at everyone including herself. The banter swings from the laugh-out-loud variety to sometimes going down a verbal rabbit hole. She drips mock despair at her team mate, Manya, reserving the most sardonic bits to describe their rapport. The portions penned with gentleness are either about the rare women farmers they meet and manage to interact with, or about the interesting non-human species whose paths they cross: “petite purple sunbirds”, “dashing Indian rollers”, the shy rusty spotted cat, the beautiful golden oriole amongst others. There is sweet praise for the intelligent baya weaver bird and Dr Salim Ali’s astute observations of it, and interesting trivia on trees.

Patriarchy and the Pangolin does bring up serious issues like man-animal conflict, inter-species impact and climate change, but does not dive too deep, although the writer has her moments of introspection. An anecdotally prolific book, it maintains a consistently no-holds barred caustic tone and is a chuckle-inducing critique of men and their ways.

Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.

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