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Cultivating Attention

Published onAug 16, 2023
Cultivating Attention

As winter warmed to spring one year towards the close of the 20th century, a pregnant sow escaped from the British-established Indian Veterinary Research Institute, fled north to the forests of Uttarakhand, and was never found. The sow, so the story goes, flourished in the forests surrounding the research institute, evading state efforts to study her body. However, her piglets—themselves products of postcolonial science—grew into troublesome boars who are neither fully wild nor domestic, whose tusks appear unnaturally large, who threaten local people and brazenly consume carefully planted crops.

In one of the five lyrical and rigorous chapters on interspecies relatedness in Animal Intimacies, Dr. Govindrajan shows how the “pig gone wild” became a complex symbolic figure, at once a “classic creature of empire” whose cyborg descendants are wreaking havoc upon small agricultural communities (122) and a subversive character that mocks state efforts to control human and nonhuman communities in northern India (121, 143). In a traditional anthropological account, it would have been enough for Dr. Govindrajan to dwell with these complex claims. Rather than stop her analysis there, however, Dr. Govindrajan poses a question that cuts through the tangles of representation and offers a different way forward: “…is the runaway pig gone wild forever doomed to be relegated to the status of empire’s foot soldier? Can her body be understood only as a site for colonial (re)production?” (123). In other words: before the sow became a symbol, or a figure, or a character, or a site, who might she be?

Animal Intimacies, Dr. Govindrajan writes, is a “book about the nature and forms of (interspecies) relatedness” (ix). “What does it mean,” she asks, “to live a life that is knotted with other lives for better or worse? How do such knots come to be tied?” (3). Through an anthology of stories about relationships between humans and animals in India’s Central Himalayas, Dr. Govindrajan plumbs the tensions between objectification and intimacy, violence and care, intrinsic to the work of being and becoming kin. At the same time as she powerfully evokes systems of kinship and symbolic representation, she renders both the animals and the humans she lives with as “subjects whose agency, intention, and capacity for emotion was crucial in shaping the relationships they made” (6). “Systems of symbolic representation,” she writes, “become meaningful when they are grounded in lived material relations” (39).

Tying the knots that bind lives together is the work of building and continually renewing worlds. It entails moving forward in the presence of friction born from the interstices of fetishization and familiarity. Attention to who the sow is as a living, material, emotive being, even as she is ensnared in human systems of meaning, is central to the contribution Dr. Govindrajan makes with this text. In each chapter, she considers the social and emotional worlds of humans and animals—of women who love some of their goats as they would their own children (Ch. 2), of a man who sets aside his animosity toward encroaching monkeys for one young macaque with soft, searching eyes and delicate fingers (118), of wild pigs whose bristles “stiffen and quiver when they are angry” (129). Even as Dr. Govindrajan presents the stakes of the cultural and political structures that shape many interspecies relationships in the central Himalayas, she also tells us about the ways local people think critically about those structures, how animals act in ways that overflow the symbolic containers humans have made for them.

In Animal Intimacies, Dr. Govindrajan models the humility and creativity that form the heart of the best and most ethical ethnographic work. These attunements are present in the range of sources from which she draws: her own experiences with animals, conversations with the people she made daily life with in the central Himalayas, anthropological theory, ecological research, local and colonial histories. These attunements are also present in her strong narrative voice, which uses story to bring readers into the affective, unspoken realms of relatedness, inviting us to imagine different configurations of power and spaces of possibility.

Dr. Govindrajan’s prose enacts an openness to otherness in all its forms, sounding the depths of knowledge that emerge from relating to another being rather than assuming any other being can ever be fully known. She leads us with sure feet into the messiness of particular velvet noses, of that one especially playful goat with the brown spots, of cows that like some humans more than others. Cultivating attention becomes an act of love in the tales that Dr. Govindrajan analyzes and tells. It is a love that does not preclude violence and does not fit cleanly into categories. Indeed, she reminds us that love never does (178). Such openness to being undone and reconstituted in relation to others, despite all the risk and uncertainty it entails, is the work required of all of us who desire to make and remake our worlds.

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