Janaki Lenin writes in­tel­li­gently and en­dear­ingly about ev­ery­thing from poop-eat­ing igua­nas to sex­ual as­sault among an­i­mals

Hindustan Times (Noida) - - READ - La­mat R Hasan let­[email protected]

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.

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