“Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas” by Radhika Govindrajan

Detail from cover of University of Chicago Press edition Detail from cover of University of Chicago Press edition

Society consists of more than just people; many studies of society, indeed, focus on people’s interaction with material things. Fewer delve into the relationships between people and animals.

The most obvious connection probably lies in how human beings live with the pets: dogs are seen as loving, cats are cold. Musings on the human-animal relations in India, on the other hand, typically concentrate on how Indians worship animals, especially, the cow. Radhika Govindrajan’s anthropological study Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas explores  possibilities that lie between these two extreme positions. Through the lens of multispecies ethnography, the author explores the ways in which the lives of humans and animals are tied  in knots in their struggle for “collaborative survival”.


Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas. Radhika Govindrajan (Penguin India, February 2019, University of Chicago Press, May 2018)
Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas, Radhika Govindrajan (Penguin India, February 2019, University of Chicago Press, May 2018)

The book is based on Govindrajan’s fieldwork in Kumaon district, a mountainous region in the Uttarakhand state in northern India, an ideal choice, she says, for at least two reasons. One is the presence of people who actually think actively about what it means to live with the animals: villagers who think of their goats as family and treat the native cows as sacred, but want to shoot wild boars and monkeys that have been abandoned her; NGO workers or animal rights activists who intervene when the shooting talk starts; Hindu reformers and right-wing nationalists who would like to stop another kind of killing: sacrifice in the name of regional deities. And then there are judges who neither issue licences to shoot animals nor allow the killing of animals in the name of sacrifice. However, they do not have a problem if the goats are killed for food. The idea of killing is further complicated by the high court of the state that prohibits killing in the name of religion, but allows killing for food provisioning.

Kumaon is a place where animals and humans become a part of the discussion around modernity and backwardness. The villagers do not see themselves as an entity separate from that of animals. Instead, they see all native population—human and animal—as pitted against humans and animals from the outside: the mountains versus the plains.

The case of goats is a striking: the villagers offer goats in sacrifice to the deities of the mountains because these gods ask for blood as sacrifice. Humans substitute animal blood for the human. The very idea of sacrifice in devotion or love for god entails giving what humans love the most. But there is more to this than just sacrifice too. Govindrajan recalls a villager saying:


Taking care of animals is an everyday ritual. But you see only the ritual of sacrifice and then say that we don’t really love our animals.


Love also informs the way women speak about “stories” about the bears who abduct women:


One night, this woman was washing the dinner dishes outside the kitchen [near the back of the house]. Suddenly a bhalu [bear] came and took her away. He kept her in his cave and rolled a big stone over the entrance when he went out so that she couldn’t run away. And then he had sexual relations with her. Lying down. And then, when he felt loving, he would lick the soles of her feet … Men go to sleep when they are finished. But this bear would keep loving her.


Govindrajan discusses how wives taunt their husbands when the latter are not in the mood for sex, and how husbands feel challenged and angered by these stories circulating among women. The goat and the bear are two co-ordinates of love here: animals as children and animals as lovers.

Other species further complicate the idea of love, as Govindrajan studies it. The villagers consider native cows sacred; American Jerseys, on the other hand, are “outsiders”, and hence, not sacred. There are local monkeys that are not a nuisance, and then there are monkeys abandoned into the villages by the real estate developers from the neighboring cities who pilfer from the villagers. The wild boars too ruin the crops and even kill people. The villagers reflect upon their relationships with each species through the lens of kind of insider-outsider, enemy-beloved positions.


From killing animals in the name of religion to wanting to kill animals in order to protect livelihoods, Govindrajan has a lot on her plate. She ties up all kinds of human-animal interactions in the space of love:


To love a cow … is to visit violence on others in her name. To love a goat is to oppose his sacrifice even if it means snapping ties with the deities who protect both humans and animals; indeed, such deities are decried as demons and sprites unworthy of worship. To love monkeys is to render them no harm even if they commit acts of violence against you. Indeed, Hindu nationalists – and their animal-rights activist allies – have declared that only certain kinds of love for animals are legitimated.


Animal Intimacies ends with a summation of loose connections of love and violence among the species:


Whether dogs who are eaten by leopards, humans whose lives and livelihoods are at risk from wild boar protected by the writ of the state, or goats who are sacrificed by humans, to be related to another is to have one’s life marked by the experience of varying levels of violence. Every act of violence only reinforces and regenerates the connection of lives and fates.


Given the tight framing of focusing of one region and the diversity of species and contexts, that’s surely a long way from elementary understanding of humans-love-animals (as food, as companions, as fellow species, or as vehicles of the gods), and of humans-hate-animals (because they kill animals, use them in experiments and so on).

While there is surely more to village life than the all-encompassing human-animal-love-violence model the author puts forward here, Animal Intimacies is a useful reminder that animals as pets, sacred objects or food does not cover all of the possibilities, even in modern societies.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.