The small, strange & slimy: Janaki Lenin on her latest book

The first chapter in Janaki Lenin’s recently-released book, My Husband & Other Animals 2 , is aptly titled Hype of the Tiger . She does not beat around the bush. Lenin writes about how the ‘magnificent animal’ has become a commodity, not just for tourists, but for hunters, conversationalists, poachers, photographers, researchers and even writers. But what about the smaller creatures: snakes, lizards and frogs? The wildlife enthusiast says she attempts to correct this imbalance through her accessible writing ‘ giving snakes and other less charismatic animals their rightful place in the galaxy of wildlife stars’. A sequel to Lenin’s first book, My Husband & Other Animals , it chronicles her life in the wild with husband and herpetologist Rom Whitaker, fascinating stories about mothering abandoned birds and studying snake personalities, are interspersed with personal and serious pieces about homosexuality, rape and being ‘unapologetically child-free’.

Excerpts from an interview:

How do we take the conservation dialogue beyond the tiger?

When the first book came out, I reached out to a friend for marketing advice and she asked if I had written about the tiger. I then realised I hadn’t mentioned the animal even once. The decision wasn’t intentional, but subconscious. Living with Rom (who founded the Madras Crocodile Bank) has made me realise how reptiles don’t get their due. The media goes nuts over a tiger census, but what about species like crocodiles or critically endangered birds like the Great Indian Bustard? There is a form of speciesism that exists even in our National parks and sanctuaries and with so much being spent on conserving the tiger, we are missing a lot in between. We don’t give any other species half the attention and my problem lies with the lack of awareness about smaller creatures like frogs and centipedes. How many of us know that there are only 700 gharials left in the world or how many mugger crocodiles there are in India?

Ways to get people to notice?

By encouraging research and getting the media and activists to get their heads out of their tiger obsession, for starters. We had the NDTV-Aircel Save Our Tigers campaign. Where is the Save Our Dugongs campaign? People look at reptiles as creepy crawlies, the ‘ugly’ ones, but they need to be presented to the public in an engaging manner. Take leeches, for instance: they are considered as pests but play an important role in a forest ecosystem. Even frogs — they are sensitive to weather patterns and are affected by global climatic changes, but no one really knows what’s happening in their world.

Getting more people to write about these animals is important and it is a writer’s job to make readers care about the subject, using storytelling rather than dry reportage of facts and figures. However, there’s also another way to look at the issue. People who are interested in smaller creatures are easily outnumbered by mammal lovers, which is why awareness and communication is crucial.

Your transition from an ‘urban’ lifestyle was intense.

I spent three years (1993-1996) researching about the king cobra for a film. I was also travelling and studying spittlebugs and spiders — reading what scientists were discovering. This learning phase was amazing. After I quit filmmaking in 2004 to write, I spent the next six years researching on subjects like resolving human-primate conflict, elephants, etc. It was an intense period and I learnt faster by getting out of my comfort zone.

But even today, I am not confident I know it all. In India, there isn’t enough conservation support from our cities, like we see in the US or Europe. People in our rural areas make space for wildlife at a cost to themselves, and it’s ironical how city folks haven’t lived with a wild creature in their life but file petitions, draft policies and launch campaigns. They need to be educated about what’s happening in our forests.

Experts to follow
  • Ashish Kothari
  • Prerna Bindra
  • Bahar Dutt
  • Nitin Sethi
  • Neha Sinha

Living in the wild isn’t easy.

My decision to step into the world of wildlife was unintentional. I am not a conservationist; I just write. For those interested in taking to wildlife full time, they should read and volunteer with people who live with wildlife and see the implications of our laws on them. They give up livelihoods and put animals above anything else, but they aren’t getting enough credit. This is what I am trying to do with my work: bridging the urban-rural divide and showing people what is out there.

How can we learn to live and let live?

I once got a call from a lady in the city who wanted to get rid of a bat in her backyard. Over countless emails, I finally convinced her to leave it alone as it wasn’t bothering anyone. People need to understand how to deal with commonly-found creatures like geckos and frogs.

If you chance upon a snake and move it into a forest, it will die a slow death as it will always try to find its way back. And most likely, another snake will take its original place. As risky as it sounds, chances are that it was probably there for months without hurting anyone.

It is interesting to find issues like rape and homosexuality weaved in.

It is a common myth that anything occurring in nature is good. We can probably stick to this myth for commodities like shampoos, but not infer moral lessons from nature. People write to me asking if rapes occur in the animal world. But is the act justified just because it is happening among animals? There are also talks about homosexuality being unnatural, but same sex behaviour is well-documented in more than 500 animal and bird species. In that case isn’t asking homosexuals not to get into a same-sex marriage unnatural?

Ours to save
  • Great Indian Bustard
  • Gharial
  • Dugong, a marine mammal
  • Siberian crane, which doesn’t come to India anymore
  • Indian swiftlet, bird found in the Andamans
  • Vultures

What next?

I am working with Rom on his memoir and writing a book on the Irulas and their traditional wildlife knowledge. I should complete it in a year.

Published by Westland Publications, the book is priced at ₹499 and available on and

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2022 3:17:58 am |