Book Review: Wild and Wilful by Neha Sinha
What does it mean to understand another life form?
Leopards are intelligent, adaptive, and elusive. Their skills ensure their survival in densely populated cities. Their elusiveness enthralls while defying human insistence on individuating them with nicknames and domesticating them with mythologies. The dominant perception of predator animals such as the leopards is that of killers, invincible attackers. While other life-forms attune their lives to the presence of predator animals through myriad forms of attentiveness and rhythmic inter-species communication, our limited understanding of predators precludes any engagement with fear. The terror leads to virtual deaths of leopards through their forceful displacement and confinement. The terror, the author tells us, doesn’t arise as much from occasions of attack or actual interaction. Instead, they are prejudiced foretelling of brute monstrosity.
Image Credits: Avijan Saha
To counter such prejudices the author urges a sensitive understanding of predation as a unique way of life and food procurement. In the words of Manjit who works with snakes in Chhattisgarh, it requires transforming fear into curiosity. The rest of the book divides across fifteen chapters is an attempt to bring about this transformation, through evidence, moving anecdotes, and insights from people who live with and study these life forms intimately. People who are invested in the love and labor of knowing from the point of view of another.
Each chapter sketches the distinctive personhood species mapped across their areas of habitation. Each chapter brings attention to their unique vulnerabilities to ecological changes. The argument against prejudiced engagement is continued in the chapter on the mugger crocodile. A decision to start seaplane services to encourage tourism around the newly built statue of Sardar Patel meant forceful dislocation of a multitude of crocodiles to clear sites for planes to land and the safety of tourists. The need to relocate crocodiles was not based on evidence of any hitherto attacks but their potential. In radical contrast to such prejudices is the moving story of Sitaram Das from Kotmi Sonar Village of Chhattisgarh, and many others of the village whose daily lives involved interactions with the Magarmach in perhaps ways that will be revelatory for the reader.
Image Credits: Jignasu Dolia
Reptiles such as snakes are the largest causality in forest fires. A situation worsened as forest fires will increase due to climate change, coinciding with seasons of nesting. The chapter on King-Cobra outlines their predicament by first drawing recognition to the question of their subjectivity. The personhood of reptiles like a snake if at all recognized is through instances of venomous attack. The author unbraids this assumption. Through the amplitude of examples, the author argues that it isn’t only the instances of attack that demonstrate intention or willfulness on the part of the snake. More prevalent instead are accounts of when the snake chose not to attack or bite. It is this exercise of solemn restrain that brings out a unique characteristic of the serpentine subjectivity. Along with the importance of the snake’s exercise of discretion, the chapter also brings to attention the dexterity of the snake in creating architecturally stunning nests, the skill of making which one would assume as impossible without a thumb or even limb.
Understanding a life form is to understand its ecology
Awareness about ways of perceiving the world that we do not understand is indispensable to ecological sensitivity. The chapter on Gangetic dolphins illustrates this. The reader is moved to imagine the sonic perceptual world of dolphins. They navigate, communicate and look for food through sounds, in frequencies beyond our audible range. The chapter urges the reader to further imagine what it must be to a dolphin in the present context where the Gangetic dolphin’s ability to conduct all life-sustaining activities is jeopardized by the escalating presence of motorized ships and boats in rivers with severe noise levels, especially after the National Waterways Act passed in 2016. To be a dolphin in such immobilizing circumstances one imagines, could be in some ways similar to growing as elephant calves in zones of conflicts, which the book tells us are similar to traumas of children growing up amidst genocide and wars.
Image Credits: Dhritiman Mukherjee
The book significantly questions the narrow understanding of ecology as predominantly green. Desserts are understood as dead landscapes – Maroobhoomi. They don’t invoke our imagination with life. Hence, the presence of solar energy plants in the seemingly barren and lifeless desserts doesn’t register as a threat. Unless, of course, one sees from the point of view of the Great Indian Bastard or many species which thrive in this landscape of saline sandy desert stretches. The presence of the high volt wires of the energy plants running through them threatens the existence of species of which only a few hundred birds remain. The third chapter is important in pointing at the collusion of habitat destruction with the promise of renewable energy.
The awareness of ecology and habitat becomes further pronounced with the discussion on the extinction of tigers at the Sariska Tiger Reserve. The chapter argues that extinction, which in this case was attempted to be overcome through forceful relocation of tigers from Ranthambore, is not just an issue of numbers or filling the gap of tiger population. Instead, it is about the conduciveness of habitat for the life forms, about addressing the fact that Sariksa wounded with mines and torn with highways have been gradually rendered ecologically dead. This chapter also asks what the difference between destruction and conservation is if both are premised on coercion and negating the will of nonhuman animals.
As opposed to forceful relocation, the book offers examples of nonhuman animal choosing their habitat, making their place. The white-bellied Heron, for example, likes confluences of rivers such as the Namdapha and Nao Dihing River’s confluence. Their habitat too has receded because of Dams. Arunachal one of the last remaining habitats of the bird is also threatened by one of the most significant hydel power projects. The heron likes cold, clear, and flowing water will not settle for the disturbed water flows of dams.
The relationship between knowing a species and knowing places is evocatively developed in the chapter on butterflies. Butterflies are much more than mere insects, much more than their interaction with flowers. Their presence is a barometer to check the liveliness of ecologies. The presence of the fluffy tits butterflies in Chhattisgarh for example, the chapter shows, helped in deciphering the importance of the region as an artery; a vital corridor of transportation between life forms between the eastern and western Ghats, Chota Nagpur plateau, and the Himalayas. The chapter also gives us moving accounts of the dedicated migration of butterflies which takes more than generations. Attentiveness to their movements, both intergenerational and the microscopic movements of individual butterflies reveals their unique sentience, as much as what is another register of time.
The importance of encounters
The book is valuable in its’ recognition of the importance of encounters, between people and nonhuman animals. That encounters are crucial in their transformative capacities cannot be emphasized enough. Vivid descriptions of what the authors, as well as several others mentioned in the book, experienced and witnessed during such encounters, be it a two-minute encounter with a leopard in the campus of WWI, the encounter with the elusive GIB after long painstaking wait at Pokhran, the witnessing of a white-bellied heron at the tip of a mountain, those and many more. Their transformative capacities travel to the reader. If one is to look for a way to overcome the disenchantment of motions that govern the interactions with the world beyond humans, then perhaps there is a lot to learn from the enchantment, humility, and openness of these elusive moments of encounters offer.
In some instances of the book, specifically, I speak of the chapter on elephants; one could feel an imbalance caused by a disproportionate lack of considering the violence and trauma which governs the lives of human persons who live in close contact with elephants. It makes one weary that an ethical reposition towards the lives of nonhuman can’t come at cost of ignoring human subjects who bear the unfair brunt of ecological changes as well. That is perhaps beyond the scope of the book brings which offers glimpses into facets of nonhuman lives especially for readers who aren’t necessarily experts but are willful to learn and unlearn.
Extent: 240 pages
Pub. Month: January 2021
Publisher: HarperCollins India