I really am a mountain person”: An Interview with Radhika Govindrajan, Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Radhika Govindrajan during her field research in Kumaon.

The South Asia Center is pleased to welcome Radhika Govindrajan to our faculty as an Assistant Professor of Anthropology. South Asia Studies graduate student Mariam Sabri interviewed Professor Govindrajan in December 2015 to learn more about her academic journey, research on animal-human relations and other interests.

How and when did you decide that you were interested in anthropology?

My undergraduate and graduate degrees were in history (from Delhi University). I focused on modern South Asian history. What struck me during that time was how open history was, at least in my experience, to insights from other disciplines. Reading Subaltern Studies, for instance, I was struck by the exciting exchanges between history and anthropology. My Master’s thesis was on the history of wildlife conservation laws in colonial India, in fact, in the region where I now work. In addition to the exciting work of environmental and social historians, anthropological literature really helped me think through how to read and interpret these laws and their multiple impacts and modalities. When I applied for my Ph.D., I wanted to further explore anthropology as a discipline, its techniques and frames of analysis, and work with my advisor at Yale, K. Sivaramakrishnan, whose own work combined history and anthropology in exciting ways.

So, in a sense, your interest in human-animal encounters preceded your study of anthropology?

Yes, the interest in the affective dimensions of human-animal relations was always there. But I also had a long-term interest in environmental and agrarian studies. Being at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) really influenced this interest. I was fortunate to have an amazing cohort of agrarian scholars and encountered interesting work in environmental history.

How did you become interested in human-animal relations?

My Master’s thesis focused on Jim Corbett, F.W. Champion, and E.P Stebbing, three shikaris (hunters) who wrote about their experience of hunting and conservation in the early twentieth centuries. I was interested in how their writings represented their relationships with wild animals in these intimate, affective ways. This interest continued into my Ph.D., but in a changed form.  Initially I was more interested in wildlife and wanted to work on wild animals. But over time, especially after preliminary fieldwork in Kumaon, I became more interested in how the distinctions between ‘wild’ and ‘domestic’ emerge and are broken down in practice, and developed a broader interest in human-animal relations.

I notice that you have worked on a wide variety of human-animal interactions. You look at animals who kill humans (leopard-human relations in your article “The Man-eater sent by god”) to animals who are killed by humans (your work on goat sacrifice) as well as human-animal contestation over space (monkey-human relations). How did you end up studying such a wide variety of interactions?

I just followed animals. Initially, I thought I would look at goats in the context of debates about overgrazing in the Himalayas, but then realized that they were also present in and shaping sacrificial arenas in interesting ways.  I went in thinking I would focus on a few animals but that broke down very quickly. Instead, what I encountered was a menagerie of animals who kept showing up in unexpected places. So I ended up letting myself being led by animals.

Is human-animal relations a relatively under-studied or newly emerging sub-field in anthropology? Has the discipline, historically, been more anthropocentric? Could you tell me a little more about the field?

Human-animal relations as a field has really exploded over the last couple of decades, even though some of the animating questions of the field, such as who has agency and in what contexts, go back decades. Questions of materiality, of course, are very old and go back to Karl Marx, even though they are being reinterpreted in interesting ways.  I would say the study of human entanglements with non-humans have transformed the field as a whole.  This year at the American Anthropological Association annual conference there were several panels dedicated to human-animal relations and the anthropocene. The debates and insights emerging from these fields are dispersing throughout the discipline and shaking up the way anthropologists approach the question of who is human, and how the human comes to be constituted as an entity in the first place.  This work also has important political and ethical implications which are really exciting.

What are implications of your work in India’s current political climate? What are some of the most challenging and exciting aspects of research in the field of human-animal relations for you at the moment?

This work, of course, has important political implications. This is a moment when political possibilities and questions with regard to animals are really open in some sense. There are really intense debates in India right now about what it means to kill and eat animals, and who can do so. These debates are mired in entrenched politics of caste and religion even as they engage important ethical questions. The biggest challenge for me is formulating an ethical position that simultaneously acknowledges how much these questions are shaped by caste and religion and works with and past that to arrive at some kind of messy ethics.

Could you tell us more about the book manuscript you are working on, “Animal Intimacies: Inter-species Relations in India’s Central Himalayas”? How does this relate to some of the articles you have already published?

The book builds on and extends the work that is currently published. The book focuses on what it means to live and die with other animals, the realm of everyday intimacies between embodied humans and embodied animals as well as the political, ethical and affective claims they are able to make about the other. Some themes include human-wildlife conflict, between monkeys, humans and wild boar; animal sacrifice; cattle-keeping and bans on slaughter.

I am going to switch gears here and ask you about your experience at the University of Washington so far. What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your first quarter at UW?

I am really enjoying getting to know my colleagues across several departments. There’s such an incredible breadth of research, and it’s really exciting to think about all the intersections. The anthropology department has some wonderful scholars and students, and I feel very fortunate to be a part it. It’s also been exciting to be affiliated with the South Asia Center. I think it is a tremendous resource. I really value the intellectual interactions with students and faculty there. The Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program is also a source of intellectual sustenance.

I’ve also had a great time teaching this quarter. I was teaching a course on Comparative Religion (ANTH 321) and had really wonderful students. It has been lovely.

Having a queer woman of color as President at UW is also something I find very exciting. But yes, each institution has a distinct culture and learning about what makes this place work is an ongoing project.

What are your plans for next quarter and the rest of the year?

I am not teaching in the winter quarter, and will spend part of it doing research in India. This will be both for my current book manuscript, Animal Intimacies, as well as my second book project which looks at village politics and how democracy in India is realized in rural spaces. [I have] Another project, the nature of regionalism in Uttarakhand, with regards to the relationship to Nepali migrants. The next two projects are not as focused on animal-human relations. I will be back and teaching again in spring quarter.

What kinds of course will you be offering in the future?

I am offering a South Asia course in spring quarter titled Modern South Asia (ANTH 323). I would love to have some graduate students in the course too. I also plan to offer a course on human-animal studies in the spring.   I also plan on offering a graduate course on materiality, given the explosion in scholarship on the issue.

I will likely offer a course on the anthropology of development as well as a course on villages at some point. I think it’s important to bring villages back into anthropological conversation. I will also likely offer a course on environmental anthropology. Additionally, I am developing a course that focuses on rituals. There is some exciting work to be done in terms of re-theorizing rituals, studying rituals that fail, rituals that produce the state and also the way we think about individual rituals.

In what ways would you like to engage with graduate students going forward?

I love working with graduate students. Conversations with them are very intellectually stimulating. They are reading and thinking about such interesting things and doing work that is cutting edge and contemporary. I hope to be able to support students, even advise them in the future. My own training is fairly interdisciplinary. I would love to work with graduate students in different departments.

What languages do you speak and how important do you think language study is to the kind of work you do?

I am a native speaker of Hindi and have fluency in Kumaoni, which is the language I used in most of my field work. I also understand Tamil and have some speaking and reading proficiency in it. I believe language study is crucial. Immersion in your field of study is important and cannot happen without fluency in a particular language. You cannot acquire an understanding of the context unless you have familiarity with the language.

I am curious to know what made you interested in the Himalayas?

My master’s thesis was on Kumaon. My research was more archival since I was a history student but it was the same region. I find Uttarakhand a fascinating place. It’s a new state in the Indian union where politics of statehood and regional identity have created interesting conversations about what defines human-animal relations, the pahāṛīness of people and animals, the question of who identity attaches to. Uttarakhand is a place where mountain identity extends beyond humans to animals and gods.

The region has a rich environmental history and the Himalayas are an exciting place to do research. Land is an important feature in my work, and going forward I am interested in studying new markets for land and what agrarian futures might look like.

Honestly, I also just love the mountains. I love doing work up there. I have gone back there every six months since 2009 and feel very connected to the people and the region.

The mountains are a good way to segue into a conversation about Seattle. How does it feel to live here?

I really enjoy living here. The flora, environment and mountains remind me of Uttarakhand. There are many affective connections. Seattle is also just a great city. The politics and conversations around who has access to the city and its changing nature are really exciting. I love the Pacific Northwest, and my neighborhood, Capitol Hill, which has an amazing bookstore (Elliott Bay Book Company) and great food and music.

What activities do you enjoy outside of your work?

I love to read fiction and poetry. Apart from literary fiction, I’m a sucker for noir. I recently finished reading What the Day Owes the Night by Yasmina Khadra. Right now I am reading The Faithful Place by Tana French.

I enjoy photography but have not had a chance to take my camera out in Seattle yet. I hope to go to the nearby islands some time. I am also a food-lover. The International District is a gift that keeps giving. I love Sichuan, Mexican and Indian cuisine. I enjoy music. My first week in Seattle I had a chance to go to a qawwālī by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad. It was phenomenal and I hope it sets the tone for the rest of my time here. I also love to hike. As I said, I really am a mountain person. I love my morning walk to campus where I see the Olympics on one side and the Cascades on the other.