Naisargi Dave’s illuminating book Indifference: On the Praxis of Interspecies Being (2023) uses the fraught (love-hate-indifference-guilt) relations between humans and animals in urban India as the ground for her reflections on ethics.
Her core material is familiar terrain to any urban resident. Multiple animal species roam the streets, skulk, or hang out in trees, demanding attention, food, and territory. Their presence leads to daily micro-struggles, and at times injury and death. At other times, surprising relationships of companionship, affection and loyalty emerge.
Naisargi N. Davé
Indifference: On the Praxis of Interspecies Being
Duke University, 2023
The author’s reflections and insights do not intend to either validate or de-familiarise these scenes, as much as show up the numerous internal knots of violence and care which hold the social relations of life in the cities together.
The author undertakes her ethnography in varied settings of human-animal interaction – ranging from urban animal shelters, farms, to slaughterhouses.
The author does not belabour context but provides it in a few lines and then moves on to her real concern which is ethical reflection. Yet, the author is attentive to how destruction in the rural hinterland has led remnants of animal packs into the cities. She does not omit the banal poverty, cruelty and suffering found everywhere. She dutifully sketches the political contexts – that a cow slaughter ban had just been passed, therefore the aged cow writhing in pain could not be put down, that in turn allowed “being there for” the animal, and what that could mean. These are the onion layers within which the activists/interlocutors she focuses on move.
The author herself has volunteered at a number of the sites that she describes, which deepens her observational span. She takes gestures, phrases, moods, as well as the look in the animal’s eye as the material for her reflections, keeping the book both wonderfully imaginative and honest.
The book takes off from the injury to the animal. The early part of the book focuses on the animal rights warriors who have set up NGOs and shelters across the country over the past century. These have been successful in passing legislation, such as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, which frames much of urban legal work today.
The author uses her ethnography at their offices and shelters to offer insights on their historical location, their motivations, and especially their relationships to the fascism of the mid-20th century, given fascism’s own troubled relationship to nature and animals.
The author observes how the highest caste of animal lovers – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) parliamentarian Menaka Gandhi, and the upper class women animal lovers (Savitri Devi, Rukmini Devi, Crystal Rogers) thought, talked, legislated, and took deep care of abandoned and other animals.
The book tracks their “compassion” with the “affective history of liberalism”. It notes that all three women were childless, and extends this into a study of their “conversion” into animal lovers.
The author also travels with the class-regular, male, animal medical caregivers in the trains and streets of Bombay, to observe how the carers pick, hold, heal and touch wounded animals, put them back on the street, and return again and again to take care of them, the futility of it all notwithstanding. The author notices how these carers navigate within the inevitable ethical contradictions they encounter without avoiding or rising above them.
Representative image of human-animal relationship. Photo: Jignesh Mistry
The author visits farms and shelters made for abandoned animals, butcher shops and slaughterhouses, with equally fascinating descriptions and reflections on contradictions like a millionaire Jain egg seller.
The reader gets a glimpse into these disparate worlds, each of which is carefully shot through with literary, mythological, historical, and philosophical digressions used for her ethical exploration. On a different register, the author’s stories serve to document “experiments in truth” by a range of actors across urban and peri-urban India.
The second track on which the book runs is its advocacy for an ethics of “indifference”. We are asked to think about positioning ourselves not on the side of, but, as side to side with, that which we care about. This brings sharply to mind the recently much-circulated article by Arielle Angel, editor of Jewish Currents, on how Left Israeli-Palestinian relationships have broken down in this current moment for insufficiently being on the side with.
For the term “indifference”, the author cites the “cultivated demeanour, that is born of the queer desire and the queer belief in an otherwise way of being”. This being quite insufficient, I went on to read one of the other citations she provides – Fran Tonkiss, on indifference in the western city. Tonkiss explores indifference in relation to anonymity, a capacity to be unseen, and the claim to solitude. She takes the example of women for whom invisibility in the public sphere is frequently welcomed, and that it can be the basis of positive claims or rights. Indifference militates against the ethic of tight community which invariably turns insular. Whereas difference requires recognition, indifference requires respect. It is an alternative mode of political engagement.
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Our author then takes this notion of indifference and explores its value in relation to human-animal relations in the Indian context. The reader is taken on a journey through a series of alliterative reflections by theorists of animals/humans to draw out aspects of this ethic. This is a generative intellectual process (though it depends on the reader). It does not fill us with facts/ knowledge or too much context. Rather, it suggests some lessons. For one, animals need not be the “object” of our attention, but exist as fellow beings. The idea of the ethic of indifference really comes to life when we travel with the caregivers on the streets of Bombay tending to injured animals, that are both familiar to them, but who are also given complete autonomy. They do not seek to “protect” them, in glaring contrast to the rubric of the Animal Protection Act.
The author also takes a good stab at “curiosity”. This of course is a notorious element of Indian middle-class behaviour, standing as a sign of intelligence, a harbinger of success, as well as for the inevitable policing. The author rather suggests that the curious gaze (metonymic to ingesting, consuming, appropriating stealing, exhibiting, mastery, etc.) should give way to appreciating “opacity”.
I thought she was being unnecessarily contrary here, but she defends it stoutly as a refusal to be on the side of the knower or the known (human and animal), a deliberate refusal, so as to be on the side of freedom, against predation, and to be respectful of singular opacities. We cannot after all ever know what an animal knows or sees as the animal sees. So, again, indifference, not curiosity.
This moves her into advocating for the mutual regard of opaque differences over the desire or will to “grasp” differences. In passing, she sideswipes love, and animus, both being as exploitative as curiosity. These are also the main emotional valences that come up through some of her earlier human interlocutors (the animal lovers). Rather, it is care, and not the passions of love or hate, that drives the ethic of indifference.
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Animals are frequently posited as the truer ethical actors in this book: they refuse, they are indifferent, they are never violently curious. She does not say if her ethic of indifference emerges from how animals actually “are”. Yet, that is how I choose to read it, though this can also only be a gross generalisation on my part. I also think she reads in bourgeois or captive individualism to animals’ life-worlds. The absence of predators (eg. big cats) as her focus possibly allows this. What she convincingly suggests, however, is how the interspecies interface is very fuzzy and neither animal nor human.
Alternately, from a naturalist’s lens, this interface contains interconnections and webs, including dependencies, and much else. The author does not explore this, which would have added a rich dimension to her study. For instance, as she asks, why do the most committed upper-caste activists feel that they want to hear the very screams of the animal. They want that pain, she suggests, so as to shed their skins, and be re-born. But what else is this absorption, mimicry, and moulting, about?
The book, through all that it records, has many moments where the reader simply stops in wonder, for we see the author has identified yet another ethical knot, and is attempting to unravel it. I have only mentioned a few of the areas she traverses.
It is a slight book, and not a manifesto, but with its heart firmly located in animal-human relations. Maybe the best praise of it is to say that the book offers a little bit of the ‘how we go from here to there’ within the horrific context of our world. Its ethic of indifference is an ethic of survival, to be along-side the neighbour, who may not look, sound, behave, feel like you.
The third track in the book is autobiographical. The details she provides on her childhood and certain formative moments is a gesture to transparency, despite the call for opacity. It humorously explains personal choices, for instance veganism, while acknowledging the politics of beef-eating. The inclusion of this track helps in the highly contentious, boxed, hierarchical and normatively anti-queer world, that is India, which has made self-righteous judges of us all, to more properly place the author and her investments.
Representational image. Photo: Pixabay
One of her investments is in “queer listening”. This is a fascinating discussion. In it, she explores the silences but also the speech of animals, while cautioning on not ever representing them. She tells the stories of the hen that spoke, leading to the abolishment of capital punishment in France, of the Brigadier General who gave up selling milk from his cows after the cow entered his dreams! Such queer worlds offer seeds or sources for alternatives.
Curiously, she does not say anything on the trend towards the legal rights of living beings. Therefore, I think she does not have much use for it, as it confines animals within human rules and codes.
Here, we note the author evinces a commitment to something called the “depolitical” – an ongoing refusal to be determined, decided for, enclosed, made useful, or made sensible through and for lines of force” which raises for her the question of “how do we nurture a politics that is not sterile, that is not all cramped up with concerns about structure, boundaries, and the proper relationship between concepts”. She suggests nomadic creativity of inventing queer frames.
While some of this is evident in the stories she tells, the author does not really explain what she means.
There are also many other areas of ethics in the burgeoning field of animal-human relations, where this book does not go. For instance, the extreme digital tech that has invaded the animal-human world, as noticed in Nayanika Mathur’s Crooked Cats. Does the author agree with Mathur that the compassion that animals evoke is not transferable to human subjects, that human-animal conflict has increased with the successes in conservation, etc. But she does not make this a comparative conversation.
Yet this book adds to the faith one can have in this new generation of scholars who, through their close investment in the animal and natural world, are charting fabulous new areas of knowledge, wisdom and ethics. This has not been the case for a long time.
To get back to the autobiographical track, the author notices that most scholars and artists write to live with ourselves, “not to reconcile but to voice our hauntings and make of them an inheritance that cares for the survival and thriving of those who live under relations of conquest in which we too are embedded, complicit”.
In so many ways, then, the book is a valuable document of record, history and storytelling. It is a call for ethical reflection to guide action towards caring.
Sara Abraham is a lawyer based in Chennai.