Emptiness and Beastly Encounters
From the Series: Emptiness
A growing feature of the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India is the emptying out of humans from villages, which are then deemed nirjan (without people). Popularly known as bhootiya gaon or ghost villages, the estimates of their number vary from approximately 1,750 to 7,000. The causes proffered for this emptying-out in Uttarakhand hinge upon poverty, unemployment, and the difficulties of living in this increasingly fragile ecosystem with its crumbling infrastructure. Emptiness is experienced partly through derelict visuals of the ghost villages, media reports, and government statistics. Another feature of ghost villages, as well as of this Himalayan region as a whole, is the increasing presence of nonhumans—monkeys, wild boars, Himalayan bears, and leopards—in previously human-dominated spaces. It is not as if these nonhumans did not always share space with humans or were not to be found in the very same villages or towns entangled in intimate relations with humans. They did and they were (Govindrajan 2018). What we see unfolding now, however, is a shift in the power balance between humans and nonhumans, with an explosion in beastly encounters between the two. This transformation in the relations between humans and nonhuman animals has become a central mode of not just understanding life in the Himalaya in the Anthropocene but also of proclaiming the imminent death of the mountains.
Ever since I began fieldwork in Uttarakhand, almost fifteen years back, I was told the mountains are finishing/ending (pahar khatam ho rahen hai) (Mathur 2015). This phrase acquires specificity when seen in the context of the climate crisis: the melting of Himalayan glaciers, fluctuating temperatures, deforestation, species extinction, and the extreme weather events this region is experiencing. The region is quite literally dying due to an ecological collapse. Signifiers of the dying of the Himalaya include the approximately 200,000 people who have migrated out as well as the misbehavior of nonhuman animals. Leopards, in particular, are now behaving in an odd fashion, not like the straightforward pahari (mountain) leopards everyone was used to but, rather, in an increasingly “crooked” manner. A crooked cat is one that has decided to go off the straight and simple (seedha) life wherein they steer clear of harming humans. Instead, by embracing crookedness, such big cats make active prey of humans as well as their nonhuman companion and laboring species. Crooked cats are very clever for they cannot be spotted easily or even fully fathomed by humans as they engage in terrifying acts of killing and consuming livestock and, increasingly, humans as well. They are coming to rule over the Himalaya, spreading their reigns of terror far and wide.
This dynamic—of human emptying out and increasing leopard domination—in the Himalaya is beautifully, albeit fleetingly, captured in an Oscar-nominated Indian documentary, Moti Bagh. Centered on the life history of an eighty-three-year-old farmer-poet, Mr. Vidyadutt Sharma, the documentary deftly tells the story of the emptying of the Himalaya through migration and human abandonment. Mr. Sharma is one of those rare persons who had a government job but quit it to return to his village in the district of Pauri Garhwal in order to tend to his five-acre farm that is named Moti Bagh (a garden of pearls). We hear of his deceased wife, his children and grandchildren who live far away in bigger towns, his prize-winning radishes, the increasing difficulties of life in villages and as a farmer, and the many changes that are visible in the mountains, including the increase in ghost villages.
Like other mountain residents, Mr. Sharma remarks on these commonplace encounters with crooked leopards that come to snatch away the cattle from their sheds. The elderly gentleman notes that today the leopard is coming for the cattle, but tomorrow it will be for the humans, as is the case in large parts of the state. It is, he observes, a very scary situation—a beastly one in fact. He then recites a poem that involves a conversation with Leopard Uncle (bagh dada) who justifies what he does by noting that it is hunger and self-respect that drives him, and not—as is the case with humans—greed. The poem goes:
Someone asked Leopard Uncle
Today the secret you must tell me
As most villages remain half empty
And you remain the jungle raja
Why sneak quietly, almost invisibly
When government roads make contractors richer?
Listen to me, Uncle Leopard retorted
Hunger is my only concern
And for it, man’s cattle I kill
So how can I on your tarred roads walk?
A rule I have—no stale meat
Even if I starve for days
But in your greed, Man
You’ve even sold a dead man’s shroud
My self-respect is greater than yours
Far greater than yours is my self-respect
There are many reasons for the increase in such beastly encounters in the Himalaya, but the climate crisis and capitalist state practices are central to the rule of crooked cats (Mathur 2021). To accurately sketch a precise temporality of this shifting human-animal dynamic is somewhat difficult. What is perhaps of greater ethnographic salience is the frequent gesturing to a near past when humans and animals lived in relative equanimity with one another and the exponential rise in the number of crooked cats in the present.
Mr. Sharma locates hunger as the reason for the leopards’ predations. Indeed, in a challenge to the anthropocentrism inherent in normative notions of emptiness, the Himalaya are visibly being emptied of nonhuman animals as well. Due to biodiversity loss and endangerment, if not outright extinction, several species that previously served as prey for the big cats have vanished, leaving these predators with sparser hunting options. Cut to this moment in time where the Himalaya are described as dying with neither humans nor big cats able to—for very similar reasons—sustain their old ways of life.
Dace Dzenovska (2020, 23) makes the point that “contemporary emptying is not part of routine cycles of capitalism,” but rather is a novel form of reterritorialization emerging from the departure of capital and statecraft. While this is certainly true of the Uttarakhand Himalaya as well, it is vital to center the climate crisis. It is the interplay of capital and statecraft as well as the foundational belief in human domination, which both capitalism and the modern state form rest upon, that has, as we know, caused climate change. The ghost villages, nirjan spaces, and the crooked cats establishing their reigns of terror on human spaces in the Indian Himalaya upend ideas of human control, even as they bring into sharp relief the anthropogenic nature of the crisis the planet currently faces.
Dzenovska, Dace. 2020. “Emptiness: Capitalism without People in the Latvian Countryside.” American Ethnologist 47, no. 1: 10–26.
Govindrajan, Radhika. 2018. Animal Intimacies: Interspecies Relatedness in India’s Central Himalayas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Mathur, Nayanika. 2015. “A ‘Remote’ Town in the Indian Himalaya.” Modern Asian Studies 49, no. 2: 365–92.
Mathur, Nayanika. 2021. Crooked Cats: Beastly Encounters in the Anthropocene. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.