THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS
Janaki Lenin writes intelligently and endearingly about everything from poop-eating iguanas to sexual assault among animals
JJanaki Lenin Westland Books anaki Lenin’s quarter century of adventures with her snake man-husband Rom Whitaker first recorded in My Husband & Other Animals gets better with this sequel. In her trademark irreverent style she recounts tales from the animal world; tales that are unlikely to cross an average mind – animal lover or not. Her stories – most published as newspaper columns – are not always about the four-legged. As Whitaker points out in his introductory note to the book,
“In the best tradition of the Indian snack called mixture, this collection has equal parts of the whimsical, serious, tragic, and hilarious.” No surprise then that the book is not structured into neat sections. After reading the first few chapters, one gets used to the candid yet arbitrary portraits of elephants, snakes, tigers or (human) grandmothers - in quick succession. The stories take the reader back to Gerald Durrell’s classic “My Family and Other Animals” – the obvious reference in the title helping a little.
Lenin has had to deal with issues that wouldn’t have crossed Durrell’s mind. Contemporary issues that occupy the mindspace of perhaps solely those living in the Asian subcontinent – such as “why do men rape?” and is it fair to compare such deviant behaviour with animalkind? Not that rape is an alien concept elsewhere in the world, but our routine insensitive handling of such cases makes the violence more brutal. This is also Lenin’s best researched chapter. She turns a tweet by megastar Amitabh Bachchan following the Nirbhaya gang rape case on its head. “Even an animal would not behave so,” Bachchan had tweeted in December 2012. Lenin argues that rape occurs across the animal world from scorpion flies and garter snakes to ducks, geese, bottlenose dolphins and primates. She delves into the psycho-social reasons for committing rape in both the animal and human worlds, wondering if rape is a male sexual strategy to get around a shortage. “The smaller chaps have nothing going for them. Not only don’t they have the physique, but
The most authentic writing leads the reader to confront her own fears. The titular story recalls a long-ago conversation about death rites with a working class Italian. “So you will be burnt after you die?” he asked horrified. Like Kamini in To Die in Benares, you had always assumed your body would be licked clean by flames. The sense of dread in the story, then, rises from the protagonist’s realisation that she has no control over what will be done to her remains.
Madvane’s writing is poetic and dramatic, and the translator’s note at the end reveals he began his career as a scholar of Eugene Ionesco: “Madavane discovered that Ionesco’s apparently absurd works concealed profound meditations on death.”
A keen sense of the absurd lifts A Holy Cow in Varanasi, a wicked piece about a Frenchwoman’s brief visit to the city.
- Did you see what the passersby did after we left? I asked to provoke her.
- No. I didn’t see anything. – Her surprise was sincere, almost adorable...
- As soon as you were on the other side of the sacred cow some of them rushed to pick they also don’t have a territory to call their own. No orang female will give them the time of day. So instead of howling, these smaller chaps go prowling for sex,” she writes. Yet only 0.2 per cent of copulations observed in the wild are coerced. Even among male chimps, who are known to be violent, forced sex is infrequent. Lenin badgers Bachchan’s tweet hollow: “So Amitabh Bachchan may be right; there’s no conclusive evidence that animals, other than humans, are sadistic.”
Lenin’s obsession with animal poop is fascinating, disgusting and intriguing all at once -- a fixation Rom warns readers about in the introduction. Her argument on why excreta is important for animals is convincing and she mentions her dog Koko, who loved devouring her own poop due to a mineral deficiency, hatchling iguanas eating their mother’s poop, and rabbits and hares too. Indeed, the list of animals engaging in this behaviour might be too long for those who think only pigs eat poop. She shines the torch on animal life much better than many volumes by experts. Whether it is about snakes and their personalities, about butterflies and lizards or about cats and crocodiles, her first-hand experience with animals – those living with the couple and those they meet on their travels to exotic lands – pack in more facts than the average book on animals. Lenin is also unforgiving in her keenness to condition average beings to perceive the animal world like she does. Sample this: Does the growth of the broiler chicken industry help increase the number of jungle fowl? Do civet cats get headaches when the coffee season is over? How does one find out if a venomous snake is a Type A personality? If the point of sex is procreation, why has evolution not weeded out non-productive sex? Or is same-sex behaviour merely a response to a short supply of one gender?
A few years ago, Lenin wrote, in her
100th column for The Hindu newspaper, of how she was lectured for disrespecting her husband in the title of the column (“My husband and other animals”). Unapologetic, she defends the title saying human beings may think they are superior as they have a culture, a language, and can empathise, but that there is enough proof to show that animals are not inferior. Lenin’s writing is intelligent and endearing and also answers the mother of all questions: Who is more intelligent - dogs or cats? This work is indeed an Indian “mixture” - spicy and tangy – and makes you hungry for Part 3. up the animal’s droppings with their own hands…
- What? That can’t be. What do they do with it?
-They make cakes.
- Cakes? – Still more horrified.
… - You are probably unaware that we faithfully use these droppings to brush our teeth. We have no interest in your industrial, tooth-destroying products. We rub our teeth vigorously with powder made from these droppings. That’s the secret to our solid, white teeth. Look at mine – aren’t they white? I showed her all my dentistry, molars and all…
While Francoise T is judged for “bursting with Western, Cartesian superiority, mixed with genuine curiosity and barely hidden contempt for other civilizations...” the reader recognizes, with a shock, that she shares the narrator’s withering Hindu scorn and the perverse postcolonial’s urge to torture the once-dominant-other.
In an era when much fiction bears the standardized stamp of writing programs, all eccentricity and individuality erased, K Madavane’s short stories are original, startling, magnificent.
Romulus Whitaker measuring a crocodile in August 1977.