“Multipartner Mud Dances”: The Uneventful Entanglement of Humans and Animals in Two Assamese Poems
By Amit R. Baishya
Looking back at it a year after its publication, three different conceptualizations of the ordinary circumnavigate Contemporary Literature from Northeast India: Deathworlds, Terror and Survival. The first is the notion of trust in the world as the ethical substance of the everyday which I borrow from the works of Jean Amery and Jay Bernstein. The second is Stanley Cavell’s notion of the ordinary as the uneventful, first elaborated in Themes out of School. As opposed to the dramatic potential of the event, uneventfulness unspools in longer temporal durations, and often disappears into the background of everyday life (or is diffused in the setting of a literary or cinematic work). Donna Haraway’s formulation of the ordinary as a “multipartner mud dance” in When Species Meet provides me with the third pathway. Haraway conceptualizes the ordinary as an animated loop of effects, that like a web has no fixed or unidirectional center, temporality or orientation. Instead, confronting the complex, intimate and carnal entanglements in her resonant picture of the “multipartner mud dance,” necessitates keeping our inquiries open to contingent assemblages between human selves and nonhuman others in the realm of biosocial life.
Since my recent work has focused more on human-animal entanglements, the second and the third significations of the ordinary have begun to assume increasing importance. To this end, in this essay, I will deploy both these concepts to read acts, potential or actual, of speciesist violence, against familiar or seemingly inconspicuous animals. The two poetic texts I will be considering are Hafiz Ahmed’s “Murgi Jobai” (The Fowl Slaughter) and Anupama Basumatary’s “Saamuk” (Snail). What unites these two poems are not simply seemingly uneventful and ordinary acts of speciesist violence (the moments before the slaughter of chickens, eating a snail), but also ethical reflections on violence, killability, bodily vulnerability and contingent moments of relationality between human and animal. These ethical reflections on living with nonhuman others reveal unexpected and intimate carnal entanglements between the plastic categories of “human” and “nonhuman” in the realm of the quotidian.
I: In the Mood for Killing: Transmissions of Affect in “Murgi Jobai”
The Fowl Slaughter (“Murgi Jobai”, translated Shalim Hussain)
The day of fowl slaughter (murgi jobai) is upon us
The butchers are blameless
Behold: in them is no guile
Reassurance comes wrapped in honey
‘There will be no pain
The blade is sharp;
just two nicks
and it will be done.’
Raise their beaks.
The blade gleams
ruffle their feathers.
The butcher (kosai) says to no one in particular:
‘Heed this warning and forget not
that you are ours to herd
ours to yoke
and ours to slaughter’.
Miya poetry, and one of its leading lights, Hafiz Ahmed, was in the news recently because of a FIR filed against ten people, including Ahmed. The complainant had objected to the politicized dimension of the poetry, and one of the poems objected to was Ahmed’s “Write Down, I am a Miya” (Likhi Lua Moi Ejan Miya), a protest poem modeled on Mahmoud Darwish’s Bitaqat Hawwiyah (ID Card). Ahmed’s poem, first published on social media, is widely credited with initiating the Miya poetry movement. There have been precedents for this literary movement earlier – Maulana Bande Ali and Khabir Ahmed’s poems are the most cited predecessors. However, as one of the prominent voices in the movement, Shalim Hussain says, Miya poetry technically started on 29 April 2016, when Ahmed posted the poem “Write Down, I am a Miya” on his Facebook page. Ahmed’s poem, a reclamation of the racialized term “miya,” began a series of responses by younger poets like Hussain, Rehna Sultana and Shahjahan Ali Ahmed.
The insidious and rather unnecessary brouhaha over the politicized dimensions of Miya poetry have often obscured engagements with the actual substance of the works. I find Ahmed’s poems, especially, quite striking in terms of its exploration of ordinariness, and of ethics as a mode of relatedness. Animals, often used as allegorical and sacrificial figures as a way of exploring the lingering impact of the Nellie massacre of 1983, recur in Ahmed’s poems – besides “Murgi Jobai” we can also consider the figuration of sheep and goats in poems like “A Story about 18 February ’83” (18 February ‘83r Sadhu) and “Silence!” (Sup!). While it would be tempting and tenable to read “Murgi Jobai” allegorically after having gone through the more manifestly allegorical poems featuring goats and sheep, I would like to simultaneously conduct and resist such a reading. The reason for that is my skepticism towards reading any animal figure as only an allegorical substitute for the human, as if all that remains behind our variegated human masks are nothing but animal skins (and, vice versa, the only way to attain a measure of dignity and personhood is to be elevated from the “animal” to the “human”). These moves are deleterious to both “animals” and “humans.” Indeed, I posit that the zoopolitical is not a mere shadow for the biopolitical in Ahmed’s poetry; instead, he invites us to consider these two categories as parallel tracks that illuminate each other.
Animal resistance seems to be absent in “Murgi Jobai” as opposed to the other two poems mentioned earlier, although we have a glimpse of animal responses (Two chickens/raise their beaks; Two chickens/ruffle their feathers) to the voice that addresses them. Moreover, unlike the other poems, the view seems to come from a distanced vantage point often interrupted by statements from the butcher. From one angle, it seems like the text is an exposure of species sovereignty, where the butcher addresses the birds as if they are his property, free to be dealt with as he deems fit. In this reading, of course, the birds are bare life completely at the mercy of the sovereign. However, from another angle the poem also reveals the “ordinary affects that traverse a scene of killing” (Dave and Singh 232). In their provocative essay on the “killing and killability” of animals, Dave and Singh ask two important questions. Defining ethics as a “mode of relatedness,” they ask what the “moods” and “modes” are that accompany a scene of killing the animal (233). Second, in their examination of killability, they “show a range of orientations that might exist between the culpability of homicide and the veneration of sacrifice, where life is neither zoe nor bios” (245).
“The Fowl Slaughter” explores this gray zone between life and death that are inhabited both by the soon-to-be-slaughtered animal and the human killers. The chickens are both “alive and not-quite alive” (245). In this twilight zone, the affective interplay between the butcher and the soon-to-be-slaughtered beings ranges ambiguously from resignation, rhetorical dissimulation to downright proprietorial indifference. Notice, for instance, how the butchers seem absolved from the culpability of homicide in the lines “Kosair nai kunu dux/nai kunu bhul” (Hussain translates this as “The butchers are blameless/Behold: in them there is no guile”). In the Assamese version the double iteration of “nai kunu” (they don’t have) and its connections with “dux” (fault) and “bhul” (mistake) reveal that this is a scene of “profane” killing: a “routine… ritual, process that does not in itself invoke a sacred purpose or value” (Dave and Singh 235). The butchers are “blameless” because they are doing what is “proper” to them.
The second stanza, however, takes us from the realm of the routine to that of the relational. The “blameless” butchers without “guile” reveal a mode of relatedness with the nervous fowl. Ironically, this relatedness between human and animal is exposed through a rhetorical dissimulation, an act of guile: “Reassurance comes wrapped in honey.” There is a disjunct between the passage of time and the speed of the action: the honey-wrapped “reassurance” that the kill will be swift is contrasted with the response of the chickens (they “raise their beaks”) and the dreadful anticipation exacerbated by the slowing down of time (“the blade gleams”; “silence prevails”). If affect is the traffic conducted in the interzone between bodies, we see here a “transference of affect” (Brennan) between the bodies of human and animal. It is because of this traffic that I choose to use the word “response” as opposed to the level of the “reactive” that the animal is often relegated to (see Derrida, The Animal that Therefore I Am).
Hussain interestingly reworks a quartet from the Assamese text in his translation that dilutes this reference to affective animal responses somewhat. This quartet goes: “Dui eta murgiye/kok kokabo bisarileo/kosair taruwalor bhoyote/mone mone ase.” Hussain translates it as: “Two chickens/Raise their beaks/The blade gleams/Silence prevails.” While this translation conveys the sense of slowed-down dread time that the soon-to-be-slaughtered chickens inhabit, a literal translation of these lines reveals one crucial aspect that has been missed: the heightened description and contrast of animal responses. A literal translation would go like this: “Even though a couple of chickens/want to vocalize something (kok kokabo bisarileo)/they remain silent/because of the fear of the butcher’s blade.” I insist on this literal translation because the contrast between those who are terrorized into silence by the sovereign other and those who dare to respond or vocalize is very evident in his manifestly allegorical poems like “A Story…” or “Silence!” Two types of animal responses are contrasted here – the terrorized ones who are relegated to silence and the others who possibly display a certain modicum of agency by flapping their wings. Indeed, the slowed down time of “silence” is broken by two chickens ruffling their feathers. Could it be that the final assertion of species sovereignty, the non-relationality between human and animal, and the associated affect of cruel indifference (“The butcher says/to no one is particular”) that accompanies routinized killing also emerges as a response to a moment of animal resistance? While both the “compliant” and “resistant” chickens will probably meet the same fate, what I find significant in “Murgi Jobai” is the delineation of varying moods in this scene of slaughter that are predicated on the question of affective response.
II: Eating and Being Eaten: Corporeal Vulnerability in “Saamuk”
In her posthumously published essay, “Tasteless,” the ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood ruminates on her experience of almost being eaten by a crocodile and writes:
Modernist liberal individualism teaches us that we own our lives and bodies, politically as an enterprise we are running, experientially as a drama we are variously narrating, writing, acting and/or reading. As hyper-individuals, we owe nothing to nobody… Exceptionalised as both species and individuals, we humans cannot be positioned in the food chain in the same way as other animals. Predation on humans is monstrous, exceptionalised and subject to extreme retaliation. Horror movies, stories and jokes reflect our deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood and sci-fi monsters trying to eat humans (Alien 1 and 2). Horror and outrage greet stories of other species eating live or dead humans, various levels of hysteria our nibbling by leeches, sandflies, mosquitoes and worms. Dominant concepts of human identity position humans outside and above the food chain, not as part of the feast in a chain of reciprocity. Animals can be our food, but we can never be their food. Human Exceptionalism positions us as the eaters of others who are never themselves eaten. (324)
Human exceptionalism predicated on anthropocentrism and the related conceptualization of the human body as a self-contained organism with distinct boundaries are the conjoint factors that lead to a sense of species sovereignty and bodily invulnerability. In such sovereign imaginaries, humans eat others, but they are not themselves eaten. The obverse of this idea of self-contained species sovereignty is vulnerability. Drawn from the Latin root, vulnus, as the philosopher Adriana Cavarero writes in Horrorism, vulnerability implies a susceptibility both to be wounded by an exposure to others and to be cared for by others. We have to understand the possibility of being eaten in this first sense of vulnus – imagining ourselves anthropocentrically “outside and above the food chain” is the instantiation of species sovereignty; to reconsider ourselves as beings that can also be eaten is to be imbricated in a relational multipartner mud dance where boundary distinctions between “inside” and “outside,” “above” and “below” are obliterated.
“Saamuk” differs from other Assamese poems on snails like Nilim Kumar’s “Aaha, Saamukor Dore” (Come, like a Snail Does) or Nibedita Phukan’s “Saamuk” (Snail). Kumar’s poem begins with an invitation to imagine oneself like a snail (Aaha Saamukor dore bhromon koru – Come, let’s travel like a snail), and through that initiating simile immerses us in the phenomenology of vertiginous molluscan movement. Phukan dispenses with the figural invitation in her first line (Seluwoi paanit mur ghor – My habitation is in algal blooms). She pitches us directly into the form of life of the snail with “mur ghor” (my habitation). Basumatary’s poem differs from such examples in that she does not directly invite us to inhabit, either directly or metaphorically, an alternative modality of animal being in the world; instead, the reversal of perspective from eating the other to an imagined act of being eaten by an other reveals unexpected contiguities and bleeds between animal and human vulnerability. This is a poem about affiliation with the other and not identification. From another perspective, the poem can also be read as a passage from unreflective anthropocentrism and the narcissism of species sovereignty to an accounting of vulnerability through an exposure to the wounded-ness of the other. To channel something I wrote in Contemporary Literature, this rite of passage from species sovereignty to vulnerability means that we move from “heroic/stoic or transcendent images of self-sovereignty and autonomy” to the “domain of an ordinary, mutually sustaining dependency and interdependency” (28).
Basumatary, who is Bodo, but writes in Assamese, divides the poem into two parts – the moment of the “then” (tahini – those days) and the “now” (etiya). In the moment of the “then,” the poetic voice slides affectively from seemingly “innocent” and child-like fun [It was fun (rong paisilu) removing the shells/and watching their recoiling tongues/before I boiled them], to an ominous tone that begins to recognize the pain and suffering of the soon-to-be-eaten other. The snails’ paradoxical corporeal assemblage, a hard exterior conjoined with a soft, fleshly vulnerability underneath is brought directly into view (incidentally, the “recoiling” movement of the snails as they slink inside their shells was enough to earn them the reputation of cowardice in many cultural traditions). Leaving aside the fun experienced by witnessing the recoiling tongues, the affective slide is initiated in the first stanza through an evocation of the sonic: as the poetic persona sucked their life-force, their sap, through a violent act of appropriation and ingestion (soha mari uliai anisilu saah), and threw the shells away, an-other note with a “strange rhythm” (odbhut sondo) emerged from the “creaking” (mormora sobdo) shells. This was the agonizing rhythm of creaturely death, one that is sensed but not witnessed directly by the poetic persona. This uncanny apprehension of this other note, the sound of dying emerging from an elsewhere, undercuts the banal attribution of innocence to the child-like fun depicted in the first few lines.
The memory of the agonizing note resurfaces in the “now” depicted in the second stanza as the eater imagines herself being eaten by an other. Locomotion itself seems to have been impacted –the same persona that could distance herself and watch the agonizing suffering of the animal other with delight, “crawls” (susori phurisu) and “clambers” (bogai phurisu) as she is flung around helplessly by the “marauding waves” (the Assamese original emphasizes the sonic dimension of these waves – hu huwai aha dhour kobolot). Sovereign distance through which the suffering of the other is delightfully witnessed “then” transforms into forms of locomotion associated with an intimate embrace of the earth in the “now.” But this embrace of the earth – Francis Ponge famously calls snails a “friend of the soil which he kisses with his whole body” – is not viewed affirmatively here; instead, it becomes an index of vulnerability and helplessness.
This invocation of vulnerability leads us to the final movement of the poem where the supposedly autonomous, self-sufficient human body is subjected to an-other through the organ of the hand. If the hand “picks” up the “upturned snails,” removes their shells from their fleshy bodies, and helps the persona suck out their sap in the first stanza, an “unseen hand” (odrisyo haate) “picks” up this crawling, clambering body and sucks out its vitality in the second. In works like “The Question Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger identifies the hand as the basic index of human-ness. The human becomes a signifying animal because hands sign and indicate. While other animals like apes and monkeys have “prehensile organs that seize and grab” (332), according to him it is only the human hand that thinks and can make worlds. While Heidegger’s absolute differentiation of the human with hands that makes worlds and the hand-less animal that is poor in world has been subjected to critical scrutiny – see, for instance, Derrida’s critique in “Heidegger’s Hand” – what is important for us here is that acts of locomotion like “crawling” are usually thought of as an activity of hand-less creatures, and thus becomes an index of debased animality. This crawling, vulnerable body is picked up by another hand in Basumatary’s poem, its “sap” sucked out (sunyo kore mur bukukhon – sunyo evokes both nothingness and emptiness), and the empty shell of its body left behind with a creaking (mormorai uthise) sound of the heart breaking. The presentation of the human body as vulnerable and eatable, achieved through acts of imaginative and sonic affiliation (the repetition of mormorai) with the suffering, hand-less animal body collapses the boundaries between the inside and the outside, the then and the now. It also undercuts human exceptionalism and reinserts a non-anthropocentric notion of humanness within a larger, expansive web of biosocial life. In this multipartner mud dance, the putative species sovereign is no longer indifferent to and separated from the suffering of the other. Instead, the memory of the snail’s agony while dying hidden by the strange rhythm of the creaking and discarded shells becomes the ground for the “making” of a “notun sok gathar sondo” (the notes of a new tale of sorrow). This new note of sorrow and interspecies affiliation would not have been imaginable without the descent into the messy mud dance of the quotidian.
Picture Credit: Aniqa Tansim Taba
Ahmed, Hafiz. “18 February ‘83r Sadhu.” Najanu Taik Kot Log Paisilu. Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, 2017, pp. 21-22.
—“Likhi Lua Moi Ejan Miya.” Najanu Taik Kot Log Paisilu. Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, 2017, pp. 15-16.
—“Murgi Jobai.” facebook.com, 03 August 2018.
—“Sup!” facebook.com. 22 February 2019.
—“The Fowl Slaughter.” Facebook.com, 04 August 2018.
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—“Snails.” Translated Pradip Acharya. cordite.org.au. Accessed 02 Nov 2019.
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—“Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand.” Translated John P. Leavey. Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Edited John Sallis. University of Chicago Press, 1989, pp. 161-95
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Ponge, Francis. “Snails.” Translated Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau. poetryfoundation.org, Accessed 02 Nov 2019.
Amit R. Baishya specializes in postcolonial literature and cultural studies. He teaches courses on postcolonial literature/theory, world literature, cinema, comic books, and popular culture (including courses on zombie cultures and mutants). He is currently completing a book manuscript on violence, terror, and survival in post-1980 fictions from northeast India. He also translates short stories and novels from Assamese to English.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.