While reading Every Creature has a Story, I am reminded of facts that barrelled towards me in childhood as I learnt new languages or what science meant. Each fact was a gleaming plaything – to be explored, bounced around and loved. Such as: light travels faster than sound. A nuclear explosion creates a mushroom cloud. The stars we see may actually be dead. Chameleons can move two eyes in two different directions, and alter their colours.
Janaki Lenin’s book is like those facts we first encountered in childhood – pieces of interestingness that become companions and sources of wonder, and ultimately our eyes and ears to understand the world. The book, as the title suggests, is an exploration of the stories behind various critters – their behaviour, adaptations and tricks to survive an indifferent world. (The essays in the book were originally published as a series of articles for The Wire, from 2016 to 2018.) In no particular order, we meet birds, reptiles, insects, marine mammals, and apes. Each is more than it appears, and the tiniest of details is what Lenin seeks out, like a bloodhound with a pen.
The book is an assortment of stories – fact after fact tumbling out with no particular classification or species-level ranking. In this, the author is taking a random rather than jargonised or academic approach, which works for this book. Because this is like the curiosity that life is – you learn about nuclear explosions creating mushrooms clouds on the same day that you learn that ferns never flower.
The book charts out short, four-page chapters on various animals. It tells you that chameleons look in two different directions, but to hunt, they need to look at the same object. That palm cockatoos fashion nuts as musical instruments to woo females. And that she will nod her head to the tune if she likes it. Wild dogs from Botswana are democratic – they take votes from pack members before heading out to hunt, and members sneeze to vote.
Snakes can be caring mothers too: South African pythons turn black as they become mothers, incubating their eggs and caring for their young for weeks after they hatch. The young pythons thus spend their first weeks in the embrace of their mother. Moustached warblers will often help females raise the chicks fathered by other males. Chimpanzees grieve their dead, often not leaving the side of their late companions.
This brings us to an obvious philosophical point: How must we consider our value for non-humans? A few months ago, Indian netizens mourned the death of a pregnant elephant from Palakkad, Kerala, who died after eating a fruit embedded with a firecracker meant to kill wild boars that raided farms. The issue took an ugly communal turn, but there is no denying that people respond to a certain type of animal and a certain type of values. The wild elephant, later named Vinayaki, became a mother, a victim, godlike in her piety and sacrifice.
The triggers behind us liking animals are based on the emotions we perceive as human-like and socially oriented: a caring mother, a grieving son, a brave wild cat, an expressive face. Where does that leave animals that don’t appeal to us through this spectrum of values, and how do books like Every Creature Has a Story close this gap?
Lenin does not set out to de-anthropomorphise the creatures in the book. When animals appear ‘human-like’, such as cockatoos enjoying music, she says so. But at the same time, she seems to understand the limitations of this narrow understanding of nature. Most chapters are simple prose that lay out nuggets of information, and thus, for the most part, it is up to you to humanise, marvel or just tuck away what you have read.
One of my favourite chapters is on the banded stilt in Northern Australia, a bird that is able to perceive when it rains hundreds of kilometres away. As it rains, it flies to salty lakes to lay eggs that coincide with the emergence of shrimp in the brine. And then there are the Australian ‘firehawks’ like black kites, which Aboriginal observers have noted set fire to the forest to flush out prey. This behaviour is not widespread, suggesting it may be local culture among the bird population.
Lenin does not have any obvious conservation message in the book. There are no ‘save bird’ speeches. If you read between the lines, the takeaway is yours to arrive at: you didn’t know that kea parrots in New Zealand play with each other, or that nightingales change their songs depending on the time of day and who is listening. Instead, the final inference is subtle: we may think well of ourselves, but the world is a complex place and we don’t even know half of what is in our garden.
At the end of the book, I am left feeling that human/non-human categories are not relevant in the scale of variety and interest. The world is a box of assorted sweets, and we are but some of its occupants. To lose any of these assortments would be akin to what biologist E.O. Wilson calls the ‘age of loneliness‘. I can’t help but wonder, for example, how a firehawk would be perceived as forest fires increase in Australia, or whether we could appreciate an unexpressive python mother as much as we do an elephant or tigress.
The wildlife literary canon in India is limited, and within it, Lenin’s voice is a confident one. She straddles a tight line between science communication and good writing, and she does a fine job. This is an interesting and beautifully produced book. Read it, and open your eyes to the world. In sotto voce, I imagine the book is saying, “You got this far. Are you still unimpressed?”
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and author. She works with the Bombay Natural History Society. The views expressed here are the author’s own.