The book is about speciesism in an anthropocentric, creature-phobic world, although the writer has hardly used the word ‘speciesism’ or ‘speciesist’ in the text. The term was coined by psychologist Richard D Ryder, a member of an incipient group that fought for animal liberation at Oxford University,
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in a privately printed pamphlet in 1971. It believes in and demands a world where we are politically conscious about maintaining quasi-equality with animals, quite apart from the diverse groups of creatures within their own species about whose equality we have tried to become politically correct over time. The work was initially undertaken as a project that was part of a research programme in Jadavpur University on the environmental history of South Asia. Ranjan Chakrabarti, who initially headed the programme, in a prefatory note, outlines its concern—the meaningful and productive dialogue of Homo sapiens with the earth ever since they came into being. Environmental awareness about our destroying the balance with all the species we have othered, and all the resources of the earth we are depleting without a care about the growing damage to the planet as a whole, continues to go on simultaneously with our mounting attempt to exploit and conquer the treasured forms of life and non-life within it.
In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of growing academic research in the preceding decades, the book discusses that aspect of environmental history that studies the relationship between humans and animals, reading along with it paradigms of such relationships in Bengali fiction. By itself, the subject would not easily become a cause for concern or discussion for someone who has no academic training in this. But Anuradha Roy’s work not only traces the bonhomous/acrimonious relationship between human beings and animals through the ages, but also interprets various stories on the basis of related empirical observations and theoretical work. She desensitizes her readers to the anthropocentrism through which Homo sapiens assert the dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ that they have created to keep themselves apart from and at a higher level than all other species. Despite uncovering the larger cognitive brain of human beings that has caused thinking and knowledge, culture and civilization, science and technology to be inculcated by them and be assimilated within their existence, this split that has prevented animals from co-existing in parity has been questioned significantly in recent times. She examines writings by anthropologists, philosophers and historians to underscore that being born and living within nature did not satisfy the privileged human species who created imagined realities like the idea of God and perpetuated organizations like religion, schools, universities, corporations, states, nations and more for more coherence in their lives.
Views have undergone changes over centuries apropos whether animals can feel and think. Roy traces the history of western thought on the subject of animals through Classical Literature, Renaissance humanism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and on to the nineteenth century when Darwin’s pathbreaking theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest, while conceding a supremely enabled human race, also traced our origins in primates, and blurred the interface between humans and beasts. She further discusses the domestication of cows, horses, sheep and goats for use and as livelihood. But human cruelty and oppression towards animals intensified as animals started being deployed for their utility or marketability. Animals got individualized gradually when, for instance, cats and dogs were kept as pets, sometimes graduating to be part of the family. Meanwhile, in colonial India specifically, the British sport of hunting and the valorization of carnivorousness asserted a kind of masculinity that made Indians seem frail and effeminate by contrast. She charts accounts of the vegetarian strain in Hinduism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Jainism, and also Gandhian Ahimsa that stretched to include our empathy with animals, but also touches on the communal politics which has recently led to manslaughter based on suspected cow slaughter.
The book is well researched, with a perusal of relevant Indian thought as well as western ideas from Aristotle to Heidegger. Noam Chomsky’s view that animals have been unable to cultivate a grammar-based language was contested and somewhat disproved. However, Derrida also argued that among reason, emotion and language, animals are only deprived of language. Western scholars have engaged with animal agency, concomitant to individualization and subjectification of animals. Acknowledging the feelings and empathy of vertebrate macro-organisms, its political agenda is obvious—to give animals a more or less equal footing within a world that has largely been colonized by humans. Since Darwin, we talk about various species in terms of connection and a continuum rather than division and differentiation.
Roy’s attempt to interweave her research on this subject with Bangla literature of the last hundred and fifty years or so, however, remains a peripheral concern. It is relegated to a separate section that is much shorter than the first one. In this section, despite a considerable identifying and probing of texts in Bangla that have animals as their protagonists or are the protagonist’s best friend/confidant, there is a summarizing of their plots rather than a critical understanding of the text in the context of the overarching subject under study. There are also scattered but pertinent thoughts on texts with animals, with a considerable amount of reading and research, but not coherently composed as a thesis. However, the intent of the book is perhaps only to present many strands of views and practices regarding the treatment of animals and the relationship between them and human beings, along with a description of such relationships in Bangla fiction. In many stories, the animals are not othered by humans. In some, animals are virtually anthropomorphized, sometimes, for instance, by attributing to dogs a canine language that is decipherable, while in others, humans are zoomorphized. Fiction writers who have sensitized themselves to understand the language of animals have compassionate insights into their minds, and have sometimes written as animal narrators in the stories. The underlying interdependence of animals and humans comes through in almost all animal-based stories. The animals’ bonding with nature within which they grow up is celebrated over ‘civilized’ beings who have moved far away. But all these, categorized within the themes of the stories under sub-headings like ‘Peasant-cow Relationship in Agrarian Culture’, ‘The Triumph of Mongrel over Pedigreed Dogs’ and ‘Human Evils in Contrast to Animal Innocence’, are rather simplistic and banal in a work that has a separate section on theory. The historian has read considerable literary texts but not been able to subsume these readings within her detailed perspective on history and anthropology in this out-of-the-way text. In a work of literary criticism, perhaps, the theoretical and the textual needed to be seamlessly melded together. This, however, is not a work of literary criticism but mainly that of environmental history.
Nivedita Sen taught English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, Delhi and has been engaging with popular literature, particularly travel fiction and writings for children.