Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India's Central Himalayas

Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India's Central Himalayas

by Radhika Govindrajan

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What does ­it mean to live and die in relation to other animals?  Animal Intimacies posits this central question alongside the intimate—and intense—moments of care, kinship, violence, politics, indifference, and desire that occur between human and non-human animals. 
Built on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the mountain villages of India’s Central Himalayas, Radhika Govindrajan’s book explores the number of ways that human and animal interact to cultivate relationships as interconnected, related beings.  Whether it is through the study of the affect and ethics of ritual animal sacrifice, analysis of the right-wing political project of cow-protection, or examination of villagers’ talk about bears who abduct women and have sex with them, Govindrajan illustrates that multispecies relatedness relies on both difference and ineffable affinity between animals.  Animal Intimacies breaks substantial new ground in animal studies, and Govindrajan’s detailed portrait of the social, political and religious life of the region will be of interest to cultural anthropologists and scholars of South Asia as well.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226560045
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/29/2018
Series: Animal Lives
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Radhika Govindrajan is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington.    

Read an Excerpt



In September 2010, only a few months after I had started immersive fieldwork in the Central Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India, Kumaon — the eastern part of the state — was ravaged by several days of furious, unremitting monsoon rain. Boulders tumbled onto the highway; trees fell to the ground with thunderous cracks that made those of us cowering in our houses fear that the sky had burst open; the weight of collapsing mudbanks pushed several houses into the ground. As the rain continued to rage, people readied themselves for the onerous repair and reconstruction that would follow. When the clouds were finally spent, Chirag (Central Himalayan Rural Action Group), a local NGO, asked me to accompany their fieldworkers on a tour of nearby villages where they would assess the damage in order to assist the state in its relief efforts. Nimmi di, the Chirag worker whom I was accompanying, decided that we would start in Simal village, where several houses had been damaged by the rain. The rain had transformed the undulating landscape into a breathtaking patchwork of different shades of green. Nimmi di admired the view as I stopped to take pictures and then instructed me to tuck the ends of my salwar into my socks as she was doing. Our path through the village, she warned, was infested by leeches, and she had forgotten to bring the salt that she had wrapped up in a torn sheet of newspaper earlier in the morning.

Our first stop was at Munni Rekhwal's house, where a retaining wall had collapsed, burying the kitchen and back rooms in an avalanche of sludge. Munni, a widow, lived alone. When her house was destroyed, she had moved briefly into a neighbor's house before inexplicably returning to take up quarters in the only room of her house that had not collapsed. Nimmi di's task was to convince her to move to the safety of a relative's home until the house could be repaired. When we got there, we found Munni in the goth (shed), standing beside Radha, a tawny Jersey cow with dark and expressive almond-shaped eyes ringed with thick lashes. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that she was little older than a calf, no more than two or three years old. All the other animals — several goats and another cow — were tethered to stakes driven into the ground outside. The air in the goth was scented with pine and gobar (cow dung), a heady and strangely pleasant fragrance that would linger on my clothes and in my hair all day. Standing beside Munni, a good foot taller than her, was a jhaadnewallah, a healer, who repeatedly stroked the cow's trembling back with the wispy branch of an acacia while murmuring mantras under his breath. His lips moved rapidly, but I could hear nothing but the heavy sighs of the cow. Radha, we learned, had refused food and water for the last two days. The jhaadnewallah left ten minutes after we got there, telling Munni to rub the juice of a lemon inside Radha's mouth. He would be back tomorrow if her health did not improve. As Radha sank into the squelching, soggy ground with a loud groan, Munni began to carefully arrange large clumps of dried pine needles around her for warmth. Nimmi di and I walked into the goth, trying to avoid the glistening clumps of dung that clung to the bed of pine needles and oak leaves that Munni had laid for her animals. Tucking her kurta under her knees before squatting on the ground next to Munni, Nimmi di tried every trick in her arsenal to persuade the widow to move to a safer location. I added my entreaty to hers, but Munni's attention was focused entirely on Radha, whose nose she caressed lovingly while alternately beseeching and ordering her to eat some grass. Though she did not eat, Radha responded to Munni's overtures by nestling her head in the crook between Munni's neck and shoulder.

I was not surprised when Munni flatly refused to move. Nothing in her demeanor had suggested that she was moved by our pleas. Nimmi di was nevertheless visibly frustrated. "Why will you not move?" she asked Munni. "What if a leopard attacks you at night? You don't have a back wall."

"Let the leopard come," Munni said, with frustrating calm. "I'll see what to do then. Look what happened when I left for one night. Radha took ill."

"The rain might have caused her illness," Nimmi di suggested exasperatedly. "The roof of your goth was damaged by the rain, wasn't it? Maybe she has a fever. Why not call the doctor?"

But Munni was firm:

It's not that. She [Radha] knows something bad has happened. Every evening I give the animals some grass. But that night I stayed elsewhere so Jeevan [her neighbor] gave them grass instead. I was so sad. It was the first time that I had not fed the animals myself. I thought "why did this happen to me?" I cried. The next morning, Jeevan told me Radha had cried all night. When I went to the goth, I saw that she hadn't touched the grass. Usually she eats her mother's share as well. It's been two days; she hasn't eaten anything. Now if I try to go anywhere she makes such a racket that I have to come back. Mahender (the jhaadnewallah) says that someone may have cast the evil eye on her. But I don't think so; she doesn't even give milk yet. She is sad (dukhi) because of what has happened. She knows when I am anxious (pareshan), and she also becomes anxious. Such is moh-maya (love). How can I let her die while I stay elsewhere for my own comfort? I will stay here. So what if my family is not here? These animals are my family too.

On Relatedness

What do we make of Munni's refusal to prioritize her safety over Radha's health? As we commenced the steep climb to the next household we were visiting, Nimmi di vented her irritation at Munni in between great gasps of air. "These village women are so stubborn," she muttered. "Imagine staying in that crumbling ruin of a house because of your cow. May I never lose my mind like that. Did you see her rubbing dried gobar off Radha's back with her saree? Rather a mad [pagal] love, don't you think?" I ventured that if, as Munni had argued, her well-being was entangled with that of her animals, then perhaps her decision to remain with them made sense. Since their lives were so intimately connected, Radha's unhappiness and subsequent ill health had emerged from the misfortunes that had befallen Munni; the destruction wrought by the rains had touched the lives of everyone in this multispecies family, and the only way for them to recover was together. Nimmi di threw a skeptical look my way as I shared this thought with her. "Has one Radha fallen in love with another?" she asked me teasingly. A few minutes later, she conceded that perhaps she did not understand this rishta (relation) because her life was not tied to the lives of animals in the same way as Munni's. When such knots (bandhan) are tied, she said, it is difficult to disentangle them. Whether good or bad, life can now be lived only through these ties that bind one to another.

What does it mean to live a life that is knotted with other lives for better or worse? How do such knots come to be tied? In this book, I am interested in exploring how these knots of connection produce a sense of relatedness between human and nonhuman animals. I use the concept of relatedness (Carsten 2000) to capture the myriad ways in which the potential and outcome of a life always and already unfolds in relation to that of another. To take these entanglements as constituting forms of relatedness is to acknowledge that one is not formed as a self in isolation but through the "doing and performing" of relations — both desirable and undesirable — with a host of other beings whose paths crisscross one's own in ways that defy the integrity of bodies and communities (Schneider 1984, 165–66). To think of these everyday relations as creating a terrain of relatedness is to question, as generations of feminist scholars have done, the "naturalness" of categories such as kinship and biology, nature and culture, sex and gender, human and animal, and to think instead about the particular contexts of their naturalization. It is to recognize that human pasts, presents, and futures are gathered with the pasts, presents, and futures of the multiplicity of nonhuman animals who share worlds with them. When Munni said that her anxiety was felt acutely by Radha, a knot of connection between them that emerged through the daily intimacy of care, it was precisely this entanglement of fates and consciousness to which she was referring.

The relatedness I explore in this book is decidedly uninnocent. To be related to another is to be imbricated in their making even when one is indifferent to, disgusted by, or hostile to them. Mutuality and connection do not imply an erasure of difference or hierarchy. As Donna Haraway (1991, 177) reminds us, if "two is too many" to describe the being who is made through relations with others, then "one is also too few." Relatedness emerges from the connections between individual animals that are akin to the "partial connections" that Marilyn Strathern (2004, 39) describes among people in Papua New Guinea in that they create "no single entity between them" and, indeed, rely on some degree of (hierarchical) separation between different figures. The existence of difference is critical to relatedness because, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2012, 38) notes, "kin can only be made out of others." Over the rest of this work, then, I hope to show that multispecies relatedness draws as much on incommensurable difference as ineffable affinity between particular individuals for its emergence.

In what follows, you will read about relatedness between humans and animals as it emerges through the ritual sacrifice of goats, an act of violence that is excoriated by animal-rights activists, and has increasingly become the subject of legislation; right-wing political and religious projects of cow protection that are troubled by the fact that the bodies of cattle are too wayward and distinct to be contained within a stable and homogenous symbol; a contemporary politics of exclusion and belonging that has been sparked by the sudden and unwelcome appearance of monkeys translocated from cities to mountain villages where they feed circulating anxieties about the erosion of cultural identity; the conservation of wild boar whose protection by the state is contested by villagers on the grounds that the history of these animals' wildness is fluid and contingent; and stories about bears who are believed to abduct and have sex with women, a tale of queer crossing that blurs the boundaries between species. Each of these chapters will trace a different form of relatedness, paying particular attention to how it is shaped by encounters between different animals across species and what kinds of material and affective labor that engagement entails. In the epilogue, I will turn to what the violent relatedness between leopards and the dogs they eat can illuminate about the intersections of violence, love, and everything in between that constitutes the stuff of relatedness.

There are several reasons why relatedness is a compelling concept with which to understand the complicated entanglements of people and animals in Kumaon. First, the idiom of relatedness was often invoked by people in describing how their lives were entangled with animals. Recall that Munni used the word parivar, or "family," to describe the relationship she shared with her cows and goats. As we shall see in chapters 2 and 3, many others also used kinship terms drawn from genealogical models of kinship to describe similar relationships of intimacy, attachment, and love that exceeded the biological and genealogical. The language of kinship was invoked by people even when relatedness with animals was unwanted and produced harmful effects in the lives of everyone involved. My friend Jagdish, who farmed a quarter of an acre, complained that his daily battles with rhesus macaques translocated from north Indian cities to rural areas in the mountains appeared as scenes out of the Mahabharata. "Here too, the battle starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Our mountain monkeys are like Hanuman. These outsider monkeys, they are Kauravas." The evocation of kin categories from the epic Mahabharata to describe everyday relationships with macaques was significant. Whether ally or enemy, the monkey was a relative. Desirable relatives were welcome to stay, but undesirable relatives — the monkey interlopers from cities — would have to be met in daily battle.

In taking these situated conceptions and enactments of relatedness seriously, I draw inspiration from the work of Donna Haraway (1991, 2003, 2008, 2016), whose writing on cyborgs and companion species reminds us that it is not just humans who are composed relationally but all critters. "Kin making is making persons," she writes in her latest book Staying with the Trouble, but "not necessarily as individuals or human. Kin is an assembling sort of word" (2016, 103). Haraway also reminds us that the critical challenge confronting feminist scholarship in this moment is that it must "unravel the ties of both genealogy and kin, and kin and species" (2016, 102, emphasis mine). While the link between genealogy and kin has been productively troubled over the last few decades, feminist scholarship on kinship and relatedness, as Harawaypoints out, has, until recently, remained largely focused on exploring human realms. In this book, I engage this missing piece by attending to how relatedness always and already exceeds the human in its everyday doings in Kumaon. My approach to relatedness is firmly grounded in Kumaoni villagers' conviction that kin making is a multispecies affair. When people in Kumaon said that they were related to animals, the metaphors of kinship were grounded in what they saw as truth. For them, to be formed as a person was to be formed relationally with other animal persons. In letting people's theories about their own lives guide my ethnographic practice, I am guided by the belief that a decolonized anthropology is one that must not only seriously engage but also be driven by the multiple points of view of its interlocutors (Nadasdy 2007; TallBear 2011; Biehl 2013).

My second reason for framing interspecies mutuality as relatedness is that the experience of sharing connection with and attachment to other animals was not restricted to humans alone. After years on end of living with the actual animals who inhabited this landscape, some of whom were not only ethnographic subjects but friends and family, I could not deny that they responded to and offered up their own gestures of relatedness in the course of quotidian relationships with one another and humans. Throughout this book, I am committed to rendering animals as I encountered them — not as a symbolic foil for human representation but as subjects whose agency, intention, and capacity for emotion was crucial in shaping the relationships they made with humans. Whether Radha, who responded to Munni's absence by taking ill, the goat in chapter 2, who treated the woman who had helped birth her as a second mother, the monkey in chapter 4, who left her troop to seek out the companionship of an old man, or the pig in chapter 5, who is in a "domestic but not domesticated relationship" with his owner, the animals whose lives were imbricated with those of humans would often convey their sense of relatedness to particular individuals, both human and animal. I am not suggesting that all animals felt a sense of intimate connection with humans or even that different species or individuals within a species experienced relatedness in the same way. Instead, throughout this book I chart how relatedness — the relational unfolding of life — was expressed and experienced in varied ways by different animals along the continuum in the course of their fleshy entanglements with one another. Instead of focusing on human entanglements with a single species, this book follows the lives of a variety of animals across different species, allowing it to complicate and disaggregate the all-too-capacious category of animal in ways that permit a recognition of the multiplicity and diversity of experiences and subjectivities among different animals. The animals I engage in the pages to follow include people, goats, cows, monkeys, wild boar, bears, leopards, and dogs, a veritable bestiary that is faithful to the abundance of entangled relationships I encountered during my fieldwork.


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Table of Contents

1 Introduction
2 The Goat Who Died for Family: Sacrificial Ethics and Kinship
3 The Cow Herself Has Changed: Hindu Nationalism, Cow Protection, and Bovine Materiality
4 Outsider Monkey, Insider Monkey: On the Politics of Exclusion and Belonging
5 Pig Gone Wild: Colonialism, Conservation, and the Otherwild
6 The Bear Who Loved a Woman: The Intersection of Queer Desires
Epilogue: Kukur aur bagh

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