Radhika Govindarajan

University of Chicago Press, 2018, 220 pp.

Reviewed by Amit R. Baishya


Based on fieldwork conducted in Uttarakhand (North India), Radhika Govindarajan’s Animal Intimacies is a formidable entry in the burgeoning oeuvre of multispecies ethnography. At the core of the book is the concept of relatedness. Govindarajan writes that through relatedness, she attempts to “capture the myriad ways in which the potential and outcome of a life always and already unfolds in relation to that of another” (3). Unlike the predominant trajectory in critical animal studies, Govindarajan does not focus exclusively on warm, fuzzy narratives of interspecies relatedness. As she emphasizes, the concept of relatedness she explores can be simultaneously “desirable and undesirable” and is “decidedly uninnocent” (4). Moreover, relatedness is not intended to erase ontological differences between humans and nonhumans; rather, the attempt is to constitute “a partial connection between beings who come to their relationship as unpredictable, unknowable, and unequal entities” (25). Building on this concept, Govindarajan considers both human and nonhumans “as coparticipants in meaningful worlding,” and also explores “reflexive exchanges between particular humans and animals” (20). Her emphasis on “particular” is crucial because the term “animal” subsumes distinctive realities within the ambit of a generalizing concept. To avoid such reductions, Govindarajan pays attention to the lives of both “particular classes of animals” and “singular animals” (20). Eschewing the tendency in multispecies ethnography to focus on the lives of a unique animal-form, Govindarajan “attends not only to how interspecies connection can take different forms depending on the kind of nonhuman animal that is engaged but also to understandings and experiences of what it means to live a life in relation to another…” (29).

While Chapter 1 lays out the theoretical groundwork, Govindarajan elegantly expands her initial claims in five subsequent chapters and an epilogue. Chapter 2 draws on discussions in ordinary ethics to consider possibilities of “ethical kinship and love in the interstices of violence” (37). Focusing on domestic goats, she studies practices of “care, attention, and reciprocity” and also “everyday, gendered forms of labor” involved in raising animals meant for sacrifice (36). She explores the specific valences of the relational term “mamta” (maternal love) that women (and a few older men) develop with goats meant for sacrifice. Chapter 3 explores the knotty politics surrounding the figure of the gau-mata (the cow mother). While this figure is a touchstone for violent Hindu nationalism in the contemporary era, Govindarajan focuses on the lives of “embodied, real cows” and what quotidian forms of relationality with bovines “tell us about the reluctance of villagers across castes to support cow protection on the ground even as they revere the symbol of the cow” (65). The chapter also explores the distinctions drawn between “foreign” Jersey cows and local “pahari” (hill) cows—these distinctions are grounded in an “embodied, intimate knowledge of bovine bodies and behavior that emerged through the everyday labors involved in caring for livestock” (67). The multiple vicissitudes of the insider-outsider distinction percolates to Chapter 3 where Govindarajan explores the relations people form with “pahari” monkeys as opposed to the relatively recent influx of “baharwale” (outsider) monkeys. The “outsider” monkeys are relocated from urban areas to the hills. While she explores the moral panics that often accompany the arrival and presence of invasive species, she ends with a moving anecdote about how an old man named Bubu, who otherwise hated baharwale monkeys, formed a relationship of reciprocity with a young monkey from the posse. The “affective force” of their encounters were predicated on the “brief glimpse of tenderness…otherwise marked only by resentment and desperation” (118). Chapter 5 continues with this focus on how particular interspecies relationships have potential to destabilize imaginaries of the world, and introduces the concept of the “otherwild”—“a messy wildness that reconfigures, unsettles, and exceeds the ways in which it is framed in projects of colonial or caste domination or in fantasies of human mastery of the nonhuman” (123). Focusing on the liminal status of pigs/wild boars, Govindarajan considers fragile relationalities that are instituted across species divides and the domestic-wild polarity, and argues that the “irrepressible tendency of pigs towards wildness should not be read as a failure of human control…but as a natural outcome of the vibrancy and liveliness of pig mind and flesh” (136). Chapter 6 examines the folkloric genre of “bhalu ki baat” (talk of the bear)—tales or songs authored by women about sexual relationships between women and bears. Drawing on queer theory, Govindarajan’s argument is two-fold. First, these stories of transgressive interspecies desire gesture towards “the potential for an as yet unrealized world saturated with desire and pleasure” (170). Even more radically, they imagine another world in which “norms separating human from the animal are undone, and the shared tug of animal desire becomes a node for relatedness between human and animal” (170). Animal Intimacies ends with an “Epilogue” that explores the complicated and violent multispecies relationships between dogs and leopards. The lives of dogs are entangled with the lives of humans and leopards, but what these entanglements reveal is the “violence at the heart of relatedness” (76).

Written in an elegant style, Animal Intimacies is a pathbreaking book that lies at the intersections of multispecies ethnography, feminist and queer theory, the anthropology of violence and of studies of ordinary ethics. On a concluding note, I find one of Govindarajan’s last statements very intriguing and rife with potential for expansion by scholars working in postcolonial studies and posthumanism—“…the promise of posthumanism must engage the lessons of postcolonialism and vice versa” (179).


Amit R. Baishya is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.


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