Recent stories, in their exploration of the potential of imagination and of the possibilities of being in this world, have also expanded how we regard the world around us — especially the world of animals, says Shalini Mukerji.
Of late, I’ve been overwhelmed by the roaring of tigers turning… well, tiger. Squawking babblers become notes of the Sargam. The signalling of orang-utans is coded into “chimpunity”. Tabled bacon puns on “Hind-Sight”. And mice become more than men (just as my mutts have pricked up their ears at all the cat-whispering). It’s as if a portal’s opened to another dimension of our world.
Recent stories, in their exploration of the potential of imagination and of the possibilities of being in this world, have also expanded how we regard the world around us. In Nilanjana’s Roy’s The Wildings, strays on the streets, tracking scents, air currents and less regarded corners, map a Delhi neighbourhood more keenly than the “Bigfeet” human compass of Eicher/Google Earth. “Never kill for fun. Only for food,” every kitten learns during his/her first hunt and even a tiger is circumspect about predatory instincts: “When your prey speaks next, listen to it for as long as you choose, and then kill it as swiftly as you can. That is the only mercy.” It’s what separates Cat from feral in this story Roy has written having “taken permission” from Neil Gaiman’s Dream of a Thousand Cats, in which cats want to dream back the world in which “all cats are queens and kings of creation”.
As writers explore fresh possibilities in storytelling and, more often than not, test the chain of “ascendant being”, you might feel insecure in your humanity. In Rajesh Parameswaran’s collection of short stories I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, for instance, bodies pile up in the wild, wilful, awful expressions of love as man and beast look for possibilities to live more completely: A tiger’s consuming love that turns unwittingly fatal; a quack doctor’s bloody blundering; an executioner’s frail yet resolute humanity.
Most searching among Parameswaran’s experiments with perspective and voice is the futurist short story “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy AD 23I9)”, about earthlings engaged in “mineral extraction operations” and sport in forested valleys inhabited by six-legged, winged creatures that suck nectar as adults, but born as hungry pupae, suck on a parent’s life. While reflecting on this fact of their being, an undertaker says, “Life feeds other life: it is equal with the act of love, another component of love… When we look at a corpse, we see all that a person was; but there is no person anymore… (it is) something entirely contingent and slight… a manifestation and a dupe of nature… Think of life as a story. Each one must come to an end, for it to have form and meaning. What gives life to the stories are the bodies at the end of them.”
It might have you think of how Yan Martel’s Life of Pi focussed its reader on the fact of survival and the fiction of humanity while young Pi is adrift the Pacific on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, “caught up in grim and exhausting opposites”, crazed with hunger or relishing turtle blood and, “driven by my need and the madness to which it pushed me”, slipping “into my mouth nearly unnoticed” strips of human flesh.
Contemplating life in its appetite, such stories take the human/ non-human debate beyond the binaries, beyond anthropomorphism even, into a liminal space in which moralising humans over animals doesn’t come naturally. It’s the “indistinction” that Matthew Carlaco, philosopher and author of Zoography, speaks of while discussing how the human and the animal relate to each other: “Animals and human beings are deeply and profoundly indistinct in the fact that we are, all of us, potentially meat.” He goes on to discuss veganism as “not hatred or disgust of meat, but a profound identification with and passion for meaty bodies and their wide range of potentials. Moreover, veganism of this sort is also an effort to release ourselves into other possibilities, potentials, and passions. Who knows what we might become when we try eating more thoughtfully, more respectfully? Who knows what we might become when we rethink who we are and who animals are?”
Through human eyes
Anthropomorphism is a dirty word today when the challenge is to look outside of ourselves; in the Pondicherry zoo Pi learns that “there was another animal even more dangerous than us, and one that was extremely common, too, found on every continent, in every habitat: the redoubtable species Animus anthropomorphicus, the animal as seen through human eyes.
We’ve all met one, perhaps even owned one… These animals lie in ambush in every pet store and children’s zoo… we look at an animal and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but of zoologists.” However, “Man and Boy”, which begins Emma Donoghue’s recent collection of “fact-based fiction” Astray, wonders about intimacy in man-animal relationships as Matthew Scott, the shambling keeper at the zoo, asks his charge, Jumbo the elephant, “Am I your master or your servant, that’s what I want to know? It’s a queer business.”
In Will Self’s Great Apes, an artist who paints scenes of bodily disintegration wakes up in a world where everyone is a chimp and freaks out; the chimps, in turn, wonder how humans with “no adaptive advantage — the capacity for social evolution” can be “afflicted with some kind of species neuroticism?”
Fabulous in how they’ve expanded our awareness of life, recent stories feature animals that don’t “talk” as much as communicate: Nastume Soeski’s under-appreciated cat who filters Meiji era Japan for us (I Am a Cat) and Johann Sfar’s Siamese-inspired cat who swallows a parrot and starts riddling on theology, love and life (The Rabbi’s Cat), for instance. Cat-thought on humanity/inhumanity is not so much about humans or animals as about the degrees of kind(ness) layering our world. Writers seem to be thinking as Coetzee had Elizabeth Costello urge in The Lives of Animals: “If we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat… any being with whom we share the substrate of life?”
In his brilliant lecture “What Makes Us Unique as Humans”, neuroscientist and professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky analyses that humans have the same genes as fruitfly but what makes humans unique is the “unprecedented human use” of our genetic design. Citing how one is overwhelmed by “Guernica”, feeling viscerally the pain of a painted horse, Sapolsky agrues that “most defining” of human is that, “Humans are unmatched in the realm of empathy… This ability to take abstraction and turn metaphors into things as powerful as the most visceral of sensory effects in the context of moral imperatives… our brains, rising to the evolutionary challenge, come up with moral abstraction and differentiate to a lizard’s brain, and build worlds of good or bad out of that.”
Vocabulary of ethnic cleansing
While adventuring through late 18 century England, Toby the sapient pig/prized bacon in Russell Potters’ delightful picaresque, Pyg, reflects: “There is scant consolation, when regarding one’s life with what Humans, who have a proclivity for accidental doublings of meaning, call ‘Hind-Sight’, in stating that what happened was Necessary, and what was Necessary indeed Happened.” He could be communicating Sapolsky’s wariness about how language — “our symbolic use of words” — has “disastrously” affected human-animal interface, since we can “reason” a being or entire species out of existence, like no other kind can.
Indeed, as Elizabeth Costello decries, “Reason is a vast tautology.” She also draws attention to how language of the slaughterhouse and stockyard echoes vocabulary of ethnic cleansing: “The crime of the Third Reich says the voice of accusation, was to treat people like animals… The particular horror of the death camps is that killers refused to think themselves into the place of their victims… They closed their hearts.” If animal studies, post colonialism, Marxism, feminism, LGBT and other studies of the underdog co-opt the marginal space that animals occupy in fiction in their articulation against oppression, it links to how Mikhail Bakhtin would have us read a story: for its moral awareness.
The sensibility or fullness of being alive to the world such narratives seek could well be how a Gond artist might integrate the matrix of our weather-turned world, as percipient as Bhajju Shyam in The London Jungle Book, observing of Londoners, “… Their entire being seems to change when they enter a pub… I have painted an English pub in the form of a sacred Mahua tree. Gonds make alcohol from its flowers. It is a provider for us, like the restaurants and pubs seem to be for English people. In Gond myths, the Mahua tree was the first tree to be created when the word began, so it will always be there. And it is the tree that loosens our tongue and sets us free during celebrations and festivals, like pubs do for the English… I show English people as bats not to make fun of them, but because I like to think of them as creatures that come to life in the evening.”
As Bhajju journeys, “The airport stuck in my mind as a huge bird of prey. An eagle that swallows humans who line up to be let inside like insects outside a termite hill. The airport is also a place of documents, stamps and seals. So I have put my bird of prey inside a stamp, like the ones on my passport. Meaning to say — you can fly if the eagle gives you permission”; and he finds, “my thoughts (are) like birds that are carrying me higher and tugging me in all sorts of new directions. My suitcase is the only heavy thing I have.”
Looking up from belabouring my perspective to watch a Brahminy kite glide through a distinctly Himalayan blue sky, awed by the fluid stillness in its flight of outstretched, unflapping wings, it strikes me that writers often go to animals for their economy of expression. I also recall Berger’s hope that “Our love of beauty will reconnect us to animals.” Another “reason” we go to animals could also be why we seek (or are drawn to) stories — for their gratis pleasure as for an expanded sense of possibilities — release. Or perhaps, it’s simply that, as the Japanese inquisitors concluded at the end of their interview with Pi, “It’s a better story with animals in it.”