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The Increasingly Feral Condition of Rural Life

Published onAug 16, 2023
The Increasingly Feral Condition of Rural Life

Are animals more than ‘good to think with’? Radhika Govindrajan’s recent ethnography, Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas, not only offers an updated contribution to this classic line of anthropological inquiry, but also goes further to explore the intimate working worlds of human-animal relations in the dense, multispecies laborscapes of the Himalayan foothills. The result is a portrait of mountain communities and faunal populations that remain knotted together in the face of change, even as their livelihoods lead them in and out of the human social orders of caste, capital, conservation, and urban-centered state development.

Govindrajan explores these interspecies relationships in a growing state of “otherwild” (pace Halberstam), which might be usefully understood as something like a condition of feral-ness or rewilding inspired by the contradictions of capital and the state in this rural margin. Mountain communities are not only pushed to seek out new lifeways as they are increasingly dislodged from their domestic livelihoods by state and market pressures, but also these human communities are pressed into complex relationships with new feral animal co-residents who are likewise seeking lifeways in this changing landscape. These new animal residents include everything from gangs of rhesus monkeys deported as nuisances from urban centers (Chapter 4) to populations of feral pigs (some allegedly runaways from laboratories) that are now protected by conservation laws (Chapter 5), and Jersey heifers for dairy production that are refiguring longstanding caste relations (Chapter 3). More than reflecting human social orders and tensions, Govindrajan’s stories of human-animal relations draw attention to the ways in which interspecies relationships are taking on lives of their own as they reshape futures in this region.

In this portrait, Govindrajan not only draws attention to the shared marginality of these human and animal communities, but also the diversely affectionate and abusive relationships they form as they seek out a living in this marginal space. The place of violence and abuse in “knotted” relationships is perhaps most extensively flushed out in the book’s accounts of village talk surrounding goat sacrifice (Chapter 2), bear abductions (Chapter 6), and the seizing of a family dog by a leopard (Epilogue). Here the text follows anthropological tradition, using talk of animals and stories of animal encounters to explore tensions in institutions of family, marriage, and sexuality (as well as the division of labor). For Govindrajan, thinking with these animals helps develop a paradigm of kinship or relatedness that can encompass the diverse forms of violence, uneven labor burdens, and transgressive tensions that build in families alongside practices of care, love, and nurture.

More than drawing out the struggles facing mountain communities, Govindrajan uses this paradigm of relationships to understand the “knots” that tie the region’s human communities to its growing feral fauna. Here is perhaps one of the book’s most unique contributions to the field: a close study of how growing populations of feral and industrial species in this rural region create new social opportunities as well as challenges to longstanding livelihoods and social organization. Across Chapters 4 and 5, Govindrajan tracks how populations of deported rhesus monkeys (from urban areas) and expanded feral pig populations (that have grown under centrally imposed conservation regimes) menace the pantries, gardens and fields of local communities driving some to leave and others to adopt new livelihoods like cash cropping gingers. In a departure from narratives of human wildlife conflicts rooted in endemic species, Govindrajan places feral animals and their subsistence seeking strategies at the center of rural human-animal conflicts. Doing so reveals that these struggles are often linked to persistent ideologies of caste that dictate appropriate relationships with these once domesticated species (Chapter 5). Indeed, the work makes a compelling case that the taboos against pigs appear to almost underpin the expansion of these feral species across India's rural otherwilds. At the same time, Govindrajan tracks how new species like Jersey milk cows brought in for the dairy industry are refiguring human caste relations, as their commercial milk  is freely shared across social boundaries (in contrast to the caste constrained milk of local cows). From case studies like these, it becomes apparent that animal and human agencies are deeply entangled and knotted together in this space. With rich ethnographic detail, Govindrajan takes these knots as an opportunity to consider how mountain communities come to bear, understand, and even attempt to care for these feral species, in relationships that are deepened as much by affection as they are by the violences and abuse of protracted human-animal conflicts in this space.

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