chapter  3
18 Pages

Agency, sex and emotion

In the second version of Pi’s tale (Life of Pi), the tiger Richard Parker disappears altogether, not into the Mexican jungle, but as a character in the narrative tout court. Humans supplant animals; animal is obliterated by human drama. This allegorical reading is quite plausible, since there are reasons – both psychological and legal – why Pi might have wished to transpose a story of human ‘brutality’ into an animal tale. Yet the forms in which Pi presents the two versions of his story are very different. The original account, notwithstanding the bizarre ‘carnivorous island’ episode, is told in realist mode; but version two is stereotypical, cartoonish even, with all the grisly elements of murder and cannibalism one might normally expect. Nevertheless, most readers of Yann Martel’s novel – like the insurance agents – would probably prefer the first and believe the second. Survival at sea with a Bengal tiger beggars belief; the equally incredible human story must therefore be the ‘real’ one. Competing human-animal priorities also come into play in another

contemporary tiger story, which forms an integral part of Amitav Ghosh’s multi-layered novel The Hungry Tide (2004). In this work, however, the tiger is not sacrificed to anthropocentric narrative expectation but rather to its pre-designated ideological positioning between the rights of local peoples and western conservationist objectives – the subject of an increasingly important postcolonial debate. As we have already seen several times in this book, such conflicts of interest have attracted the attention of both postcolonial and environmentalist critics, who are alert to the dilemmas involved in conserving endangered ecosystems and animals when the livelihoods of local (subaltern) peoples are simultaneously put at risk. The problem often seems intransigent, with either humans or the ‘extra-human’ environment demanding prioritisation (Cribb and Narangoa 2003: 1093-1102). Nor has the situation of these

peoples necessarily improved with independence. Instead, numerous instances can be cited worldwide of subaltern groups being targeted by their own governments in league with global capitalist ventures, through internal political corruption or on behalf of international conservationist NGOs. Whether or not such collusion against one’s own nationals occurs with the cooperation of international corporations, it is often precisely those animals and humans allegedly being protected who are the first to suffer from its destructive effects. A case in point is the historical background to Ghosh’s novel. In 1979,

the West Bengal government was keen to secure the support of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) in order to carry out its task of evicting thousands of refugees from the island of Marichjhapi in the delta region of the Sundarbans, also the last refuge of the Bengal tiger, hunted to nearextinction in other parts of India, especially during colonial times. By this period, a large section of the region had been reserved for a tiger conservation project, with WWF both rewarding and pressuring the incumbent Left Front government to protect the area from human incursion. Unlike the tiger, the Marichjhapi refugees were not indigenous to the area but had been forced into it, first by displacement during Partition and later, in the early 1970s, by the break-up of East and West Pakistan and the founding of Bangladesh. These refugees, while not initially a cohesive group, were brought together through their neglect and eventual persecution by the West Bengal government. Economic blockades were instituted but, when these failed, the government resorted to more draconian measures, employing off-duty policemen and even criminal gangs to ‘remove’ the refugees. Carried out unofficially, this drastic ‘removal’ campaign resulted in murder and rape on a massive scale (Mukherjee 2006). While European instrumentalist attitudes towards the environment

and the corporate exploitation of land continue, counter-moves – themselves often inspired by western attitudinal changes – have had catastrophic results for people violently co-opted into western systems and world views. The environmental historian Richard Grove has provocatively contended that it was in colonised areas of the world that European naturalists, scientists and administrators first apprehended the need for conservation measures and, in recognising the finite amount of flora and fauna at their disposal, began to implement strategies of preservation. Whether one agrees or not with Grove’s hypothesis, it is certainly the case that as long-established scientific hierarchies and ‘predator-prey’ models of relationships in nature came increasingly to be challenged during the twentieth century, pressure to preserve non-human animal and plant species grew with it. Ironically, however, this shift of

emphasis from anthropocentric to environment-based (ecocentric) philosophies and practices not only failed to benefit those very peoples whose pre-colonial apprehension of being-in-the-world had been systematically denigrated by Europeans, but also consistently provided justification for their colonisation, the ‘primitive’ being distinguished from the ‘civilised’ precisely by its proximity to the natural world. Indeed, as Robert Cribb has shown in relation to Dutch environmental legislation in Indonesia, ‘the creation of national parks and the protection of endangered species have both excluded indigenous peoples from regions they have occupied and managed for centuries and [have] hampered them from using natural resources as an economic base from which to seek modernity’ – a modernity into which European incursion had already propelled them (Cribb 2007: 49). While the dilemmas such conflicts raise have been important to both

postcolonial and environmental studies, they are particularly so at the intersections of the two related areas. Neither the ‘Marichjhapi massacre’ refugees nor their descendants (the villagers in Ghosh’s novel) were or are indigenous to the region, but they had suffered a history of violent displacement that initially brought them to the area – one which, constantly shifting between a state of land and a state of water, provides an objective correlative for their own unstable past. The Hungry Tide offers a superb evocation of the region: of the sights, smells and sounds of the great delta beyond Kolkata, and of the ways in which the lives of the people who live there are attuned to its ever-shifting rhythms and moods. And it is into this area that Ghosh (2004) propels his two protagonists, Piya (an American citizen of Bengali descent) and Kanai (a city-based translator and self-styled cosmopolitan), whose apparently incompatible approaches to environmental and social issues, tested by the material realities of the region, are eventually resolved. Local knowledge plays a key role here: Piya, the educated metropoli-

tan scientist, falls in love with Fokir, an illiterate local fisherman, partly because of his intimate knowledge of the region and his intuitive understanding of the habits of the endangered river dolphins that live there, creatures she has come to study in her turn. Fokir proceeds to save Piya’s life not once but twice, first when she is at the mercy of a corrupt park warden and his partner, a local captain, and second at the cost of his own life, when he shields her from a great storm that threatens to engulf them both. While Ghosh is sympathetic towards Piya, he is also implicitly critical of her, as he is of Kanai, for their shared tendency to dismiss local social/ecological knowledge. This attitude is not shared by the latter’s social-activist relative Nilima, who admits that she knows nothing about dolphins or environment conservation, but whose views are

shaped by the daily lives of the people who live in the region, as she does, and who are attuned to both the pleasures and perils it affords. Piya eventually realises that she doesn’t want to ‘do the kind of work that places the burden of conservation on those who can least afford it’ (2004: 327). By corollary, the novel appears to advocate the sensible policy of no conservation without local consultation and participation (and to attack the alternative of interventionist arrogance, an arrogance matched by the brutal indifference of some of the Indian government park wardens, exemplified in the episode when, in pursuit of villagers who have burned alive a captive tiger, they accidentally run over a river dolphin – Piya’s symbol of hope for the survival of the species – in their boat). But the real clash of interests is displaced – perhaps deliberately – in

Ghosh’s novel. In recent decades, the strongest international pressure on the Indian government has been for tiger, not river dolphin, conservation, in large part because the Bengal tiger represents a prime example of a global signature species at mortal risk. In the novel, however, because both refugees and locals are dependent for their survival on the fickle delta environment, they frequently encroach on protected tiger territory – and some are killed by tigers when they do. Thus, when the villagers capture a tiger, they feel entitled to take revenge on the now defenceless animal – a traumatic scene the reader witnesses through Piya’s horrified eyes. Hurried away by Kanai and Fokir before she can intervene, Piya is simultaneously shielded from the realisation that her wish to protect the tiger has been based on a revulsion against cruelty that fails to take into consideration the number of local people whose lives have been taken by tigers in the past. People, Ghosh seems to assume, necessarily take precedence over animals. Piya’s decision at the end of the novel to become a ‘rooted cosmopolitan’ rather than a ‘footloose expert’ (Shalini Randeria’s terms, 2007) is only possible because the local people have no particular issue with the dolphins; the much more intractable problem of tiger sanctuary is thus displaced by the relatively easy ‘dolphin solution’, and neither a practical nor a philosophical answer to the situation of the tiger is offered in its place. Thus, even when a provisional solution to the social/ecological pre-

servation of the Sundarbans is found at the end of Ghosh’s novel, it fails to dispel the residual unease surrounding the earlier episode of the tortured tiger. Ghosh’s implication is that this is a further lesson Piya has to learn: not to regard Fokir as a ‘noble savage’ living in harmony with his environment in order to persuade herself of their shared environmentalist ideals. Fokir’s mother had been a victim of the Marichjhapi massacre and his enthusiastic participation in the torture of the tiger suggests that while the villagers are certainly taking revenge on a ‘man-eating’ animal,

they are also symbolically avenging their persecution at the hands of the Bengali state. As is so often the case with ‘man-eaters’ (among other examples of ‘pest species’), human responsibility is elided and scapegoats are found in the shape of the animals on whose territories they encroach. Meanwhile, although Ghosh depicts the local environment as being mightier than either humans or tigers – at one point Piya and Fokir attempt to shelter from the ferocious storm in a tree, as does a nearby tiger – the endangered Bengal tigers are not generally seen as being an essential part of an ecosystem – including humans – or as sharing characteristics with humans as fellow-inhabitants of a decidedly hostile but also unusually fragile place. Arguing that Ghosh has sought, in both his creative and critical work,

to present us with ‘the disenchanting [of] the divisive and destructive borders and boundaries propagated by colonial and post-colonial modernity’, Pablo Mukherjee adds that such ‘disenchantment’ cannot take place outside of an ‘eco paradigm’ since this necessarily opens up

ways for us to assess the central issues faced by ‘second-wave’ poco/ eco theories – how to analyse contemporary post-colonial political crises as being continuous with ecological crises; how to excavate a history of bio-regional modernities; how to centre refugee migrants and not ‘hybrid cosmopolitanism’ as the paradigmatic post-colonial framework.