“We licked the dictionary off each other’s faces” : Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children

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Shot of treesWhat’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).

In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).

Writing draws disparate experiences into sharp parallels, but Bhanu Kapil’s book somehow manages to collapse space, time, borders, human beings, and animals all into the same moving constellation of reality. As she summarizes, this work is a text to “Vivify,” to make living (63). The body becomes geography: the body incorporates its own borders, makes the forest a field of flesh. Humanimal is a project for past and future children. Kapil asks the reader: could you find the difference?

The book’s genre is not without distinction, although it is difficult to parse. The text takes as its first source a book found at random: “in the dark library, I closed my eyes and let my right hand drift over the stacks” (59). From there, Kapil works with a film crew creating a documentary in India on the “wolfgirls” (55). But the documentary and Kapil’s process couldn’t be more different, as “The film-makers…hire the local folkloric theater…to re-enact the capture of a girl by a wolf” (29). This overdubbing of reality doesn’t match up with Kapil’s way of seeing. Her method follows a more intuitive plan connected to the earth’s turning, as, when traveling: “I put my knib on the page and let motion wreck the line. My notes were a page of arrhythmias, a record of travel” (43).

The book is a physical travelogue through spaces, from Denver to Midnapure and back again, from wolf to girl to back again. All in all, it is a blurring. Describing how the British “erased sections of the forest” and re-planted accordingly, in order to take sal, an Indian tree notable for its use as timber, Kapil notes: “Linearity is brutal” as “chronologies only record the bad days, the attempted escapes” (13 and 34). But we’re also met with a transposed description of Kamala, sick with illness from becoming human, communicating a mix of consonants similar to Bengali: “Though the words were broken…she expressed herself in a wonderful way” (39). Kapil’s book is somewhere between brutal linearity and the broken words: it expresses itself, therefore, as “humanimal.”

Ultimately Kapil’s project is completed because it is abandoned. Time passes: “A border is felt in the body as fear and sometimes…no, I cannot speak for her now” (64). Kapil is often asked if she is from “outside” or from “another country,” and feels her difference through skin color and language (18, 37, 50, 59). She draws close to an alphabet depicting reality so it can be “exhausted,” asking the reader, from the first paragraph of the book to its end: “Can you see it?” (9). Are you here with me, in these countries, where both you and I are outsiders? Are we in the jungle flooded first with red, then blue? Can we see it? Can we speak?

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