- Feralizing the Human/Animal Distinction in Bhanu Kapil's Humanimal
On April 7, 2017, Samantha Schmidt of the Washington Post reported, "Amid a troop of monkeys in the Katra-niaghat forest range in northern India roamed a naked human girl, playing with primates as if she were one of them. She looked emaciated, her hair disheveled. But she appeared in a comfortable state, until the police arrived." Within twenty-four hours, Schmidt retitled the article "Accounts of Girl Raised by Monkeys in India Questioned" and made an editor's note available to readers: "New information has been reported since publication of this story that raise significant doubts about the veracity of the initial accounts on which it was based. . . . While the girl appears to have been abandoned near the forest in question . . . officials do not believe she had been living among monkeys." The updated report confirmed that the monkeys had protected the girl from the police officer who extracted her from the jungle and although the girl was said to screech and walk on all fours, new sources (including chief forestry officer J. P. Singh) found the "wild child" speculation unbelievable. How would she have escaped leopards and other predators in the sanctuary? Why would she be wearing clothes? Why hadn't anyone living in the area already recognized her? The next day, a new article, written by Karin Brulliard and Swati Gupta, documented the quick transition from "the 'Jungle Book'-like tale of a young girl said to have been found living with monkeys"—a [End Page 362] "shocking, disturbing and fascinating" occurrence—to the more common narrative of a (racialized, potentially "disabled," and undervalued female) child abandoned by Indian villagers. Brulliard and Gupta lament how the story deviates from legends of feral children found in an exotic wilderness to appear "less like a fairy tale and more like a tragedy of neglect and desertion."
The figure of the wild child has been of particular interest in India since British colonization, becoming most prominent with Rudyard Kipling's publication of The Jungle Book in 1894.1 During this period, several such cases were documented and circulated by colonial officers and European and Indian missionaries. Kalpana Rahita Seshadri traces the "predictable pattern" of such discourse: "The first scenes, where the wild child appears and haunts the villagers who have sighted 'it,' are followed by scenes of capture, then attempted domestication (the anecdotes here providing maximum entertainment and sensation), then invariably the grand failure of the scientists to integrate them into society, and finally a willed forgetting" (143). This willed forgetting erases the particularity for any given subject and leaves behind an empty figure of cultural fascination. The individual in question either perishes before being successfully integrated into human society or is reasonably discredited from the feral condition altogether. In either scenario, Seshadri's conclusion is resonant: "[t]he children melt away into obscurity, having metamorphosed from being interesting feral creatures to simply asocial, pathetic, and abnormal adults" (143). As material subjects, these children become undifferentiated from one another while the social fascination with the state of being feral remains and intensifies.
Bhanu Kapil's experimental text Humanimal: A Project for Future Children emerges from her interest in the limited archive on two such girls (later named Amala and Kamala) found living with wolves in India during the early twentieth century. Humanimal begins with a short preface that explains how Kapil—a British Indian writer now living in Colorado—encountered their story in a companion text to Robert Zingg's Wolf-Children and Feral Men, first published in 1945 [End Page 363] (ix). There she found the excerpted diary of Rev. Joseph Amrito Lal Singh, who tracked down the "terrible creatures," killed the wolves, and brought the girls back to his church-run orphanage in Midnapure (ix). The subsequent trajectory of Amala and Kamala's short lives corroborates Seshadri's assessment. Public fascination became widespread after Rev. Singh revealed the feral origins of the girls. The New York Times responded in a manner all too familiar with the Washington Post's coverage of the monkey girl in 2017. After likening Kamala to a "Mowgli in Real Life," the...