The Work of Pahari Femininity

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Animal Intimacies

Photo by ILRI, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

It’s exciting to make one’s first joke in a new language. My first Hindi joke happened at a tea stall in the Garhwal Himalayas. I was sitting with other Hindi language students at a table in the sun, watching as various animals—mostly monkeys, dogs, and cows—slowly enjoyed their afternoons. Suddenly, a scraggly male dog snapped at a fluffy brown female. His tail stood up as he lunged at her a couple of times, and she trotted off with what looked like only mild annoyance. I clicked my tongue towards the male and said, “maidani hoga.” He must be from the plains. Joking that an irritable male dog was “from the plains” was only funny because of similar refrains throughout Garhwal and over into Kumaon where Radhika Govindrajan’s Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018) takes place. The students and I had heard everything from pollution to petty crime attributed to “outsiders” from the plains. As a narrative, the allegedly aggressive and greedy “plains” works to define its opposite, which is peaceful pahari-ness.

Govindrajan’s beautiful ethnography engages many topics; it is about intimacy, kinship, love, life, death, and violence. For me, however, it is also about pahari women. In describing them, Govindrajan invites us to think of multi-species ethnography as descriptor, adjective, and method as well as subject. In this case, the relationships between humans and animals are the subject, but also methodology and data—a means to elucidate another subject. Govindrajan mentions that most of her time was spent with women (28). Because these women are so closely involved in the intimate care of animals, while men are not (with few exceptions, such as the man pictured on page 45), an ethnographic interest in relationships between animals and humans means the ethnography would be primarily sourced from the experiences of women. What results is a story of interspecies relatedness, and also a story of pahari femininity.

Part of what it means to be pahari depends on what it means to be from the plains, and resentments toward “plains people” surface often in the book. Some of these attitudes originate in the split from Uttar Pradesh (UP), wherein people from the plains of UP enjoyed the Himalayas’ resources without returning jobs and development (13). Today, these resentments are refueled by rich plains people purchasing pahari land for lavish second homes (51). Yet feelings of difference between what is pahari and what is maidani become clearer when looked at through interspecies relations. In Animal Intimacies, cows from the plains do not have the same shakti as a pahari cow. Monkeys are a menace only because they come from the plains; they learn their thieving behavior from their entanglements with thieving people.

Since Govindrajan mentions that she herself is from the plains (137), I wondered what she thought of this talk. My own research takes place with a plains community on the Haryana-Delhi border that I can easily imagine pahari log describing as “thieves, dacoits, and goons” (104). I found myself bristling at these depictions, in small part because of similarities between the two communities. Like Govindrajan’s interlocutors, the community I work with sacrifices goats. They too experience tension over whether and how to continue this practice. As nomadic goat herders until the 1970s, the goat had long been the primary, if not only, source of livelihood. I’ve never heard any discussion over whether the goat is an adequate sacrifice. There is, however, intergenerational tension, as well as disagreements between those with and without college educations, over whether or not to continue the practice.

In Kumaon, goat sacrifice seems to depend on pahari femininity. Govindrajan tells us that the goddess used to demand the sacrifice of a human son, but in recent times the goddess has come to accept the sacrifice of male goats instead. Pahari women raise and care for these goats, and experience maternal love for them as if they are children. Women, not men, become entangled in the intimate care of these animals. When the goats are sacrificed, the women mourn them. Some, like Neema, feel it is “like watching a child die” (35) which means, in the eyes of the goddess, the sacrifice is comparable to losing a son. Women grieve this loss because of the everyday intimate care they perform in raising these goats. Their grief is absolutely essential to making the sacrifice count. Men do not perform this care labor, and therefore do not feel this grief. The implication is that without the anguish of pahari women, the goddess might again require the sacrifice of human sons. Rather than the entire family grieving a son’s death, women sacrifice for the family by taking on the emotional labor of mourning the sacrificed goat.

Govindrajan introduces us to similar gendered entanglements with other animals. The cow, for example, is subject to a Hindu nationalist campaign of protection. As caretakers of these animals, pahari women understand pahari cows as eligible for this kind of sacredness, but do not believe cows “from outside” are capable. Nevertheless, everyone is subject to a political regime which makes no such distinction between kinds of cows. In another chapter we learn that women are “almost entirely responsible” for forest work (166), leaving them more vulnerable to attacks from wild (or semi-wild) animals such as boar. The state does not allow people to kill these dangerous pigs which, in turn, seem to have taken this as an invitation to share the landscape with humans they do not perceive as a threat. In both, the relationships women have with animals are pushed aside in favor of nationalist, conservationist, or other agendas.

Animal Intimacies shows us what life is like for women in these Himalayan communities. It is about forming kinship with other pahari beings, both human and non-human, as opposed to maidani beings. It is about making sacrifices for the family and taking the risk of laboring in the forest. It is about love and relatedness and entering into exchanges with others to benefit the kinship community. It is about being “almost entirely responsible for the tedious and arduous labor of caring for animals” (179), and the kinds of ethical bonds emerging from that labor.

“You know what the identity of a pahari woman is?” a young woman asked Govindrajan. “Women in the plains don’t do this kind of work. But here a forty-year-old woman looks much older. Hard labor is our identity” (42). Early in the book, I assumed this was a statement about the physical effort of living and working in mountainous terrain. By the end of Animal Intimacies, however, I wondered if she may have also meant a second kind of labor. “Women in the plains” often work excruciating hours in industries like agriculture or construction, but perhaps the young pahari woman is right that plains women don’t do quite the same kind of labor she does. By focusing on interspecies relatedness, Govindrajan shows us that pahari women labor with and for animals. They are responsible for building and maintaining kinship with human and non-human animals alike and, when their time together ends, a pahari woman does the “hard labor” of mourning the loss of an intimate, interspecies, relation.