Entangled Lives: Human-Animal-Plant Histories of the Eastern Himalayan Triangle

Harsh Vikram Singh

Entangled Lives aims, at its core, to bring into focus the connected histories of the various beings of a region which rarely is an interest area of study for historians: the Eastern Himalayan Triangle (further referred to as ‘the Triangle’). This book attempts to highlight the composite agency of humans and various non-humans in shaping the history and the present of an extensive region, encompassing diverse geographies under administrative control of different countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, and Myanmar.

The book is divided into three sections, mainly on the basis of the time periods covered in the corresponding chapters in each section. ‘The Deep Past’ deals with the evolution of the Triangle’s geography and the migration of humans to the region. ‘Cosmologies’ deals with the integration of the human and non-human worlds and the resultant relationships between the various actors. ‘More-Than-Human Histories,’ the third part, covers the immediate past of about 150 years, wherein the delicate balance achieved and maintained over centuries and generations among the numerous inhabitants of the region is disturbed, leading to a redefinition of relationships through newer forms of contestation.

The introduction frames the agenda of the book through three questions about a region that historians often ‘marginalise or ignore.’ The inclusion of the history of plants and animals in reconstruction of human histories is the first of these questions, paving the way for ‘multispecies history,’ and the development of an understanding that the non-humans of the region have been equal partners with the humans in ‘designing’ the region as a whole. The second question is of overcoming the limitations of the ‘nationally territorialised narratives,’ which here is resolved through the construction of a spatial unit termed as the Triangle, which includes the national territories of five different countries. The third question that the authors have attempted to explore is the oft-apparent issue of disparity amongst indigenous understandings of history in comparison to academic history writing. This is done through a discussion of the relational understandings of time for various human societies in the region so as to be extremely conscious of the multiplicity of the temporalities in the region, and also through being sensitive towards the terminological diversity and related self-identification issues of the human populations in the region.

The chapters that follow include discussions on regional geography, explaining the utility of constructing a space as an experiment to study commonalities, moving on to discussions of regional ecological diversity, and the changes that have taken place since the arrival of the first humans. Through rice, barley, bamboo, mithun, elephants, hornbill, viruses, and many other non-human beings, the human history of the region has been reconceived. Though usual oral and pictorial representations of origin stories and cosmologies of the people of the region have been discussed, this discussion has closely interlinked the role and position various non-human animate and inanimate actors and agents have in these human cosmologies, and in the worldview and life philosophy of the people of the region.

The book also raises a very valid and logical question on the tendency of using the term ‘colonial’ to denote the time period of about last two centuries. Since a major part of the region did not experience colonialism or only very late and for a short time, the lived experiences of the inhabitants of the region were vastly different. As dealt in the concluding chapters, the more interesting aspect in the modern history of the region vis-à-vis exploitation of the locals and conflicts between the humans-non-humansis seen in the decades following the independence of the countries that administer the region, wherein the promise of self-governance for the people of the Triangle has not completely materialised.

One of the important contributions that the book makes is that it gives agency to the non-humans. The agency of, say plants, will not be easily understood and realised unless someone (a human) writes it for them, hence giving it agency. The authors eloquently do this through case studies of rice and bamboo, shaping the life of humans in multiple ways – a grass(rice), while being domesticated, in its own way domesticated the humans; another grass(bamboo), very beneficial to humans, in its bloom brought famines.

Another important contribution is the strong position taken against the polemics of wildlife or biodiversity conservationists. The authors have shown in the book the relationship of understanding and reciprocity that existed between humans and their non-human neighbours in the region. This challenges the rather simplistic notion that the indigenous/tribal people are natural conservationists with inherent notions/values for the preservation of all life forms. The people of the Triangle had sustainable life practices with regard to other life forms not because of their ingrained tendency to protect, but rather for the acceptance of the connectedness of life and reciprocal relationship that existed between them all. The isolation of the region, significantly lesser human population, a near absence of exotic invasive species, and negligible presence of modern technology also had a role in a less conflicting human-nonhuman interactions. Many modern conservationists in association with the state seem to deny this reciprocity and the history that has already taken place in favour of an idealistic, unreal protectionist strategy, wherein the conservation of one species (say a rhino) trumps the survival of all other species (including humans).

The book’s blurb and introduction tell us the significance of this book as well as its limitations. It is a survey work, focusing on ‘commonalities and not particularities,’ with an attempt to create awareness and interest about a region that is often ignored, using a style of history writing that may be applied in other parts of the world. The more-than-human histories intersect with various branches of knowledge and are much needed in context of the present global climate crisis. For this, the region is of special importance for it includes three distinct bio-diversity hotspots. And this is why the bookleaves much to be desired, compensating only through its extensive and eclectic bibliography.

However, I have two quibbles. First, some more maps may have been included in later chapters to help readers locate the places, especially when the discussion was more localised in the smaller parts the Triangle. Second, the bamboo famine should have been explained earlier when it is first mentioned, instead of a later chapter.

This book, however, helps visualise a space and realise how vital and connected the history of that space is. To me, it is in the same club as Michael Pearson’s Indian Ocean and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads.