ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reimagining the Relationship with the Non-human World

Wild and Wilful by Neha Sinha, Noida: HarperCollins Publishers, 2021; pp 232, `599.

Policies and practices aimed at conservation in India increasingly grapple with a new reality—that of nature operating outside human borders (Rangarajan et al 2014). On the one hand, habitats promised to non-humans in India (and the majority world) keep shrinking, their borders being
redrawn to accommodate interests of unequal growth. On the other, a technobureaucratic hubris seeks to contain non-humans within administrative boundaries. What problematises this approach further is that non-humans produce their fluid geographies—migratory corridors, evolutionary ley lines, and criss-crossing dominions—that continually question and challenge human-imposed borders. The question is, how do human and non-human relations get reconfigured when nature ‘‘spills over’’? Is human–animal conflict an inevitable outcome of such dissolution or is it possible to manage conflict in a crowded country experiencing high levels of wealth inequality? Can an intimate understanding of the non-human world replace conflict with conviviality? What kind of beliefs and practices do humans need to transgress to shape such a relationship?

In Wild and Wilful, with a collection of 11 articles, dedicated to 15 iconic Indian species, Neha Sinha sets out to engage with some of these questions. Each chapter not only brings home the unfamiliar from the distant wild but also seeks to familiarise the reader with the wild that exists in their everyday lives. This explains why, apart from India’s iconic ‘‘wild’’ species, such as the Indian tiger, Asian elephant, Indian leopard, and the Ganges river dolphin, Sinha also includes species that penetrate urban everyday existence, namely rhesus macaque, rosy starling, and tiger butterfly. By placing the great Indian bustard, an endemic and endangered bird of which barely a hundred remain in the world, alongside the migrant amur falcon, whose numbers, thankfully, have begun to thrive in response to conservation action, Sinha balances lament and anguish with hope and triumph.

Taking a cue from the animated superhero television series—Captain Planet—Sinha organises the book into four sections—Earth, Sky, Water, and Heart. This organisation subtly intersects with terrestrial, avian, and aquatic species, but wilfully perhaps, the great Indian bustard and the white-bellied heron find a home on earth and not in the sky.

Human–Animal Conflict

In the opening section titled “Earth,” Sinha draws attention to the issue of human–animal conflict by discussing five key species—the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), the spectacled cobra (Naja naja), the king cobra (Ophiohagus hannah), the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), and the Indian tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). Each of these species inspires love, affection, fear, and loathing. Some, such as the rhesus macaque and the Asian elephant, enjoy the status of Hindu gods (Hanuman and Ganesh, respectively) while the spectacled cobra and the king cobra are part of Hindu ritual worship. And yet, as Sinha shows, reverence does not necessarily lead to conservation.

This paradox where an enigmatic species transforms from ‘‘protected’’ to ‘‘pestilential’’ is most vividly described in the opening section on the Indian Leopard, which has increasingly become an archetype of human–animal conflict in India. Such conflict registers on closed-circuit television footage that frequently captures leopards hunting pet dogs from urban premises with meticulous stealth. The other involves their brutal lynching, where angry mobs take group selfies over a bloodied carcass. Sinha foregrounds her own experience of engaging with a ‘‘relocation’’ of a leopard found inside the Yamuna Biodiversity Park in Delhi. The retelling of her experience provides insights into how politicians and administrators prioritise paranoia over wildlife science in their response to human–wildlife conflict. As Sinha shows, disregard for science is not limited to elected representatives, as India’s premier wildlife sciences institute ends up falling prey to the same paranoia when a leopard is spotted inside its idyllic campus. Sinha passionately argues that relocation—a panacea in the case of human–animal conflict—serves to amplify the problem. As the confused and frightened animal continually attempts to return home, it ends up cutting across more human boundaries. Sinha’s vivid description of a captured leopard, bashing its head against the steel bars of its cage—an act of self-harm—becomes symbolic not only of rage and rebellion but also of the struggle of non-humans to break free from human confines.

A similar fate shadows the rhesus macaque and the Asian elephant, both venerated and vilified. Sinha concludes that every time animals behave differently or appear in a place, which they were excluded from, they become pestilential. This argument closely resonates with Krithika Srinivasan’s (2019) recent theorisation of “unintentional natures”—animals living “outside the realm of human control.” Though Srinivasan mostly refers to her research on street dogs in urban India to problematise how “notions of the valued and pestilent” is constructed in conservation debates, Sinha’s stories showcase how such theorisation can even apply to iconic species, such as the leopard or the elephant, as they begin showing up in towns and villages. Interestingly, the reverse penetration of stray dogs and cows inside “wildlife” habitats shows how ‘‘unintentional natures’’ continually upend conservation zoning. Furthermore, if leopards venture outside wildlife sanctuaries into urban areas to hunt for street dogs and tigers do the same for stray cattle, then “unintentional natures” not only emerge out of the dissolution of borders that separate humans and non-humans but also the artificial separation of non-humans through categories such as “wild” or “domestic.” Conservation science and practice, therefore, has to contend with such ontological messiness while making sense of nature operating outside protected areas.

Conviviality

In “Sky” and “Water,” Sinha celebrates stories of conviviality. The story of the conservation of the amur falcon (falco amurensis) in Pangti village in Nagaland has now become part of the conservation folklore. Sinha draws on her own experience of being part of a campaign that metamorphosed mass hunting of the winged visitors into a community conservation success fostered through ecotourism. To her credit, she does not shy away from reflecting on the political struggle of Nagaland—a state in the north-east region of India that has witnessed decades of economic neglect, ethnic conflict, and military oppression. She elegantly illustrates that community-based conservation is not only about conviviality between humans and non-humans but also between different social groups where trust emerges as an operative word.

In the story of Sitaram Das, popularly known as Babaji, in the Kotmi Sonar village in Chhattisgarh, Sinha sketches an intimate portrait of how selfless love shapes human–animal relationship. The septuagenarian temple priest lost one of his arms to a female mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) who was protecting her eggs and perceived him to be an intruder. Surviving such a near-death experience instilled an undying love in Babaji for conserving mugger crocodiles. His lifelong mission to serve the very species that maimed him for life is an extraordinary tale of compassion. This story stands out in the collection as it chronicles a spiritual and empathetic relationship between the human and non-human world existing outside the neo-liberal calculus of “win-win” conservation.

Radical Empathy

Sinha vividly describes how human ignorance and antipathy towards the non-human shapes conflict between the two. As a result, farmers in West Bengal who pelt elephants with firebombs to keep them from entering a village acquire sharper focus. So do people who try to film themselves kissing cobras for TikTok videos. In comparison, the political economy of limitless growth that drives non-human extinction tends to get blurred. It is not that Sinha stays away from such debates. In her narration, the great Indian bustard (Ardeotis nigriceps) and the white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis) become impediments to ‘‘green growth’’ and ‘‘progress’’ as their habitats become coterminous with renewable power projects. However, while Sinha’s emotive prose generates radical empathy for the non-human world and critical enquiry into human prejudice, it does not necessarily examine the current paradigm of economic growth embedded in the everyday consumption that has locked the non-human and the human world into inevitable conflict. One encounters this in Sinha’s enchanting description of the flight of a common grass yellow butterfly from her car while stuck in traffic in Delhi. Sinha shifts the reader’s attention to the butterfly as a lively celebration of urban nature after a fleeting personal reflection on the grim reality of Delhi’s polluted air, substantively fuelled by the exhaust fumes of privately owned automobiles.

Imbued with scientific knowledge and insight and written with a deep sense of compassion, Wild and Wilful is a powerful exhortation for reimagining our relationship with the non-human world. In his recent article, “Against Nature Writing,” writer and philosopher, Charles Foster (2021) expressed his anguish that language keeps falling short of describing the non-human world in its own terms. In his words, “Language wants to clutch, corral, and fence; to constrain, tame, and neaten the tangled wild” (Foster 2021). In Wild and Wilful, Sinha has used language as an intimate intermediary between the human and non-human world. Her writing emerges as a counterpoint to Foster’s argument, generating empathy and wonder for each of the species she writes about, while at the same time, deftly dismantling the arrogance that scaffolds anthropocentrism by showcasing that intelligence, memory, imagination, kindness, and love are not qualities exclusive to humans but are distributed and dispersed across all species.

References

Büscher, Bram and Robert Fletcher (2020): The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene,
London: Verso.

Foster, Charles (2021): “Against Nature Writing,” Emergence Magazine, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/against-nature-writing/.

Rangarajan, Mahesh, M D Madhusudan and Ghazala Shahabuddin (eds) (2014): Nature Without Borders, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Srinivasan, Krithika (2019): “Remaking More-than-Human Society: Thought Experiments on Street Dogs as ‘Nature,’” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Vol 44,
No 2, pp 376–91, https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12291.

 

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Updated On : 4th Jun, 2022
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