“Our monkeys are like us,” an old man from Kumaon tells anthropologist Radhika Govindrajan in Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas, “rank simpletons (kuch jyada hi seedhe). But these outsider monkeys have been raised by the most cunning people in the bhabhar [plains]...All the vices (buraiyan) of humans are in them.”

Although directed against monkeys translocated to the Kumaon hills from places as far away as Delhi, the old man’s diatribe outlines the most pressing concerns of livelihood in the hills. As Govindrajan goes on to show, the “criminality of emigrant monkeys” is related to the larger issues: migration from the hills in search of better livelihood opportunities in a time of agricultural distress and reverse-migration by city dwellers who acquire land in the region, driving up prices and consuming already-scarce resources.

“It’s too expensive here now,” Deepa, a Dalit woman tells Govindrajan. “There’s no water in any of our naulas (springs)...but so many people are still taking water to construct their kothis...Life in this village is becoming harder for us by the day. Only outsiders can pay the price to live here now.”

Framing the debate of exclusion and identity within the attitude towards these “urban” monkeys, Govindrajan creates a space of “relatedness”, where the translocated monkeys represent not only the displacement of locals from their land, but also a larger concern towards their urban provenance and the loss of local cultures (and land) in the face of this onslaught: “If you send us to the city, we won’t know what to do, but these monkeys will. They know everything. Just as cunning as people from the plains.”

Life and livelihood

It is these spaces of relatedness, a “substance of kinship” acquired through shared connections and bonds, that emerge from “constant transactions between beings and the landscape they inhabit”, that Govindrajan traces in her magisterial work.

The book probes larger issues of life and livelihood in the lower Himalayas of Kumaon by breaking down the relationship between humans and “nonhuman species” – the mamta felt towards goats raised for sacrifice, non-pahari cows bred for greater milk yield and their eventual disposal in a time of gau raksha, crop-raiding wild boars that may have been domesticated once upon a time, the violent relationship between leopards and dogs, the translocated monkeys, and imagined sexual intimacies between bears and women.

Govindrajan begins with an evocative chapter on animal sacrifice. She debates its moral and legal implications, the presumptive approach of animal rights activists and modernists who decry such “backward” traditions, and the violent severance of relationships between animals raised for sacrifice and the women (in most instances, it is the women who take care of the animals and perform most labour in hill societies) who raise them with “more care than my own children”.

Beyond simplistic binaries

There is the modern, “rational” approach to animal sacrifice – that it is a superstition, a failing of religion – as represented by Girish, a local who moved to the US. Then there is the belief of local Kumaonis, as represented by Neema di. “Taking care of animals is an everyday ritual,” she tells Girish. “But you see only the ritual of sacrifice and then say that we don’t really love our animals. It pains me every time I see one [of them] die.”

Despite the violent severing of these ties, Govindrajan argues, “the death of an animal with whom people feel this embodied kinship creates a sense of loss and grief that is essential to making sacrifice truly a sacrifice.” This is an extraordinary chapter, one that correlates love and its myriad natures to notions beyond simplistic Manichaean categories of superstition versus modernity, and of religious belief versus irreligious activism centred on the “welfare” of “dumb animals”.

“When people...mourned the death of sacrificial animals, they did so because everyday acts of regard and attunement had created deep bonds between them,” Govindrajan writes. Breaking down what it takes to raise an animal, she locates this nurturing when a woman tells her: “I took a vow (vachan)...raised them like children...How can I not feel mamta for them?”. Drawing the line further, Govindrajan expands on how women are expected to perform the bulk of the gruelling labour involved in caring for livestock animals. “You know what the identity of a pahari woman is?” a young woman asks her, “hard work...it starts from childhood itself...hard labour is our identity.”

A question of identity

From the ethics and legalities of sacrifice, Govindrajan shifts the discourse to the struggles of livelihood in the mountains. In a chapter on cows, she points out the difficulties in disposing of the older, unproductive animals during a time of Hindutva politics centred around cow protection.

Within this larger debate, however, is a question of identity: the pahari cow was associated with “moral and physical strength” compared with the hybrid jersey cow, a distinction that is seen in the ritualistic use of the former. “Jerseys are good cows,” Neeta, a local woman, tells her, but “they don’t have as much shakti as our pahari cows, but that is because they are not of the mountains.”

Between the cow and the invader-monkey, Govindarajan establishes the ideas of exclusion and pahari identity (and anxieties). She completes the narrative through the interactions of residents with crop-raiding wild boars.

Govindarajan writes of the legend of boars descending from a single pregnant sow that escaped a veterinary institute during the British era, contextualised within a postcolonial narrative of how rural folk are imagined as a savage predatory unit “declared unworthy of trust”. Colonial-era laws of conservation forbid villagers from killing the boars but the state fails to understand the damage they do to the crops. The initial arguments made against the monkeys return: since they (the officials, in this case) are not from the mountains, they cannot understand us.

Ursine lovers

Govindrajan concludes with a fascinating chapter on stories about sexual intimacy between bears and women, breaking them down within the framework of gender, control over women’s sexuality, and what it means when a woman deigns to express her sexual needs. When a woman tells her husband – who says he is too tired to have sex with her – that “a bear would make a better lover than him”, the comparison induces the man to make love despite his tiredness. The telling of the story is also placed within the domestic violence that women face: “perhaps it was a story that indexed the khatta-meetha nature of intimate relationships”.

Then there is the notion of wives having to embody the virtue of “laaj”, a term that encompasses shame, modesty, honour, and more. The story of the bear, in this reading, is a subversion of the virtuous wife, a “woman’s genre, told by women and taking on the female point of view”. Through modified retellings, these stories either allude to women’s enjoyment of a sexual encounter with the bear while commenting on the lack of sexual capability of their husbands, or parallel the resentments women felt in their married lives. When Kusum’s husband tells Govindrajan not to include the story in her text (because her retelling hints at her in-laws’ ill treatment of her daughters), Kusum insists she must. “These men think they can enslave us. But I won’t tolerate it.”

Govindrajan has offered us an extraordinary work that breaks down these real or imagined relationships with animal species within a larger inter-disciplinary context of politics, identity, livelihood and gender relations.

There is a tenderness to her writing that goes beyond just empathy with those she spent five years with. By incorporating the voices of locals within a framework of academic analysis, she allows a larger picture to emerge, one that is undiluted by moralistic hubris. That the governance of hills requires a more careful understanding of their ecosystems and the interactions of humans with their surroundings is implicit. Animal Intimacies is a rare text, both for the quality of its scholarship as well as for simply offering us stories of a people who face perilous challenges in the modern globalised economy.

Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas, Radhika Govindarajan, Penguin Random House.