- Beastly encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, livestock and veterinary health in North India, 1790–1920by Saurabh Mishra
In Beastly encounters of the Raj: Livelihoods, livestock and veterinary health in North India, 1790–1920, Saurabh Mishra demonstrates that issues relating to livestock and veterinary medicine in India formed a nexus point between social, colonial, and medical histories, and can be used to test and rethink a variety of historiographic debates. Indeed, this is a far-ranging book, spanning one hundred thirty years and issues as diverse as horse breeding, public health, caste identity, famine, and the priorities of the colonial state. The result is a broad rather than deep analysis but also a work that shows how livestock functioned as a point of connection between several disparate communities in India, including peasants, urban consumers, merchants, tanners, and the colonial state.
Mishra describes this book as a "social history of livestock," but it is perhaps better conceived of as a history of colonial policies regarding livestock-related issues and, to a lesser extent, the reactions of specific Indian populations to those policies (4). This is particularly true in Part One of the book, in which Mishra examines the history of Western-style veterinary medicine and research on the subcontinent. As he shows, for over one hundred years, colonial veterinary medicine in India was almost exclusively concerned with breeding and treating horses and other animals for the military. It was not until the 1910s that greater attention was directed at epizootics that affected cattle, and even then colonial institutes were both underfunded and unquestioningly followed metropolitan research initiatives that were not necessarily relevant in the colonial context. While the focus in this first part is firmly on the priorities of the colonial government, Mishra notes the impacts of Indian people and markets on these policies. Interestingly, despite the many failings of colonial veterinary institutes, they received critical support from upper-class Indian patrons, who viewed these centers as "powerful symbols of modernity" (61).
It is not until Part Two of the work that the social aspects of this history come to the fore. In these three chapters, Mishra examines the catastrophic famines of the late 1890s as well as alleged cases of food adulteration and cattle poisoning. The interplay between the colonial state, Indian society, and culture is also more evident, as Mishra explores urban-rural tensions, colonial myths, caste identities, and the choices peasants made when faced with inadequate and Byzantine relief policies. [End Page 339]
As a whole, Beastly encountersmakes a strong case for the significance of livestock and their potential value as a lens for studying issues related to public health, the priorities of the colonial state, and specific social developments in India. As Mishra states, though, he "adopted an exploratory stance" in this monograph, and readers may wish he had pushed the analysis within several chapters further (145). This is particularly true in the conclusion. At just over three pages in length, it could not do justice to the broad range of topics raised in the book or the interconnections between them. Mishra reminds readers that one of the overarching aims of the book is to "bring together medical and social history in a common narrative," but it also would have been helpful to have a comparative discussion of how the issues and policies explored in the book might jointly and severally inform the existing medical historiography of colonial India (146–47). Similarly, a longer conclusion might also have expanded on those topics that made repeated cameos in the book, such as the tension between Western and indigenous knowledge or how colonial fear could trump the "military and financial compulsions" that Mishra argues "drove the colonial state away from the concerns of the rural population" in India (145).
Mishra seems to have partially anticipated such a critique of his study. In the conclusion he argues that while each of the points raised in the text requires further research, looking at them together...