Review of Rabies in the Streets: Interspecies Camaraderie in Urban India. Deborah Nadal, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020, 278 pp.

Reviewed Book

Rabies in the Streets: Interspecies Camaraderie in Urban India. Deborah Nadal, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020, 278 pp.

Rabies in the Streets: Interspecies Camaraderie in Urban India. Deborah Nadal, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020, 278 pp.

Harlan Weaver

Kansas State University

In Rabies in the Streets: Interspecies Camaraderie in Urban India, medical anthropologist Deborah Nadal provides a fascinating look at “rabies as a social being” (p. 10). Building on the fields of feminist science and technology studies, medical anthropology, and human–animal studies, Nadal’s ethnography highlights not just the lyssavirus itself, but the myriad relations—material and discursive—through which it emerges. Drawing on interviews, participant observation, news media, linguistics, religious texts, and careful ethological observation, Nadal’s is a truly multi-species ethnography, radically decentering the human in assessing how rabies becomes in and through the “web of historically and politically situated physical, structural, and cultural elements” that comprise contemporary India (p. 229).

Mindful of anthropology’s colonial histories, Nadal refuses the logic of cultural pathology in her focus on what might be termed cascading relations, each inflecting the next. For example, a journey following a cow as she wanders through Delhi, alternately ingesting garbage and eating out of people’s hands, leads Nadal to connections with goshalas (where cattle are “retired” but known to starve to death), India’s beef exportation industry, legislative measures meant to clear streets of cattle, and burgeoning nationalist interest in native cattle breeds. In spite of the cow’s high status in contemporary Hindu culture, Nadal comes to ask the poignant question: “How is it possible […] that cows are suffering hell on earth in India, of all places?” (p. 177). While some of the relations that shape Nadal’s thinking are deeply material—the hands that feed cows, the dogs who bite, the intense hydrophobia characteristic of rabies infection—many are structural, with shifting governmental and local politics providing fascinating and conflicting approaches that throw into relief not just how but why cows in India suffer. In this regard, Nadal’s writing renders the structural violence of a human-centric social order particularly clear.

A key violence that surfaces repeatedly in Nadal’s argument is the practice of culling street dogs, which effectively serves to reduce the buffer zone provided by vaccinated non-rabid dogs, thereby leading to greater infection risks on top of the violence of slaughter. Situating motives for culling in a cultural context where dogs are seen as both dangerous and unclean (especially in comparison to cows), Nadal also pays keen ethological attention, analyzing how age, class, and gender inflect human/dog relations in a range of spaces. It is rare to find writing focused on non-human animals that simultaneously engages “the animal” and living nonhuman animals, yet Nadal weaves smoothly between the material and discursive in delineating, for example, the impact of news media stories and popular perceptions on the livability of dogs’ and humans’ lives. This weaving is also powerfully affective, as when Nadal traces how the street children most vulnerable to rabies exposure are often the most caring toward the animals that endanger them, with a complex discussion of class and gated communities situating these interactions in the context of a larger social order. 

Nadal’s sometimes-unobtrusive ethnographic methods, such as tailing cows and dogs throughout their days, highlight the book’s engagement with the nonhuman, which I found particularly fascinating. For example, the streets that animate the book’s title shape the conditions of possibility and livability for a multitude of species, many of which Nadal has carefully researched and historicized with nuance and breadth. Then there is the fleshiness of bites and saliva, a driving force across a range of narratives that Nadal chronicles. Nadal vividly relates street children’s fears of rabid bites leading to dogs becoming pregnant with puppies, lending an affective materiality to the understandings Rabies in the Streets documents. Further, bodies are sometimes discrete entities and sometimes composite beings in Nadal’s thinking, no more clearly than in the “food in the middle” chapter, when Nadal presents compelling evidence for coprophagia as a key motivator in dog/human encounters gone awry.

Rabies in the Streets’ commitment to decentering the human most manifests in its form: The chapters are structured around key entities who give rabies its life, and humans are only one of them. After introducing her central interlocutors, street children, and exploring their vulnerability to structural violence, Nadal turns her focus to nonhuman animals, analyzing how they acquire food and the range of meanings attributed to street dogs, macaques, and cows. In the chapter “Living with Rabies,” Nadal collates a wide range of rabies-related materials, illustrating key misperceptions of rabies and rabid dogs in particular, which in turn leads to questions of how street children in particular are vulnerable to the lyssavirus before closing with an exploration of conflicts and errors in the use of postexposure prophylaxis historically and currently in India. Finally, Nadal’s conclusion, much like the introduction, situates Rabies in the Streets in conversation with a range of related writings, particularly focusing on the “inter” of interspecies and “more-than-human” subjectivities that emerge through human–nonhuman animal relations. Taking up questions of a “multispecies commons” and the roles of “liminal” animals such as scavengers in larger social order, Nadal argues for the need for “interspecies camaraderie” that challenges the us/them logic of practices such as culling (Baynes-Rock 2013: 222). Arguing that “interspecies cooperation […] makes life difficult for the rabies virus,” Nadal closes Rabies in the Streets by encouraging a collective politics wherein rabies emerges not as a danger incorrectly perceived as localized in the bodies of street dogs, but rather a shared threat that continually disrupts understandings of public/private, permeating the social order as a whole (p. 224).

While Rabies in the Streets guides readers toward Nadal’s “interspecies camaraderie” through its near-constant move between the structural and the local/material, its metaphorics can be confusing at times. Nadal excels at explaining and exploring other works with which the book is in conversation, but sometimes loses the thread of her own intervention in this situating. Further, while the choice of “camaraderie” reflects Nadal’s emphasis on human–animal relations, it does not easily mesh with the book’s spatiality and its nonhuman orientation; entities without discrete bodies are hard to imagine building trust and collective ideals! And while Rabies in the Streets is remarkable in its breadth, India’s histories of neocolonialism and nationalism are not as prominent as they might be. That said, this is a truly original book and a fascinating read; for those looking for classroom texts, either the whole book or select chapters would make excellent materials for both undergraduate and graduate classes in a range of fields, including cultural anthropology, sociology, science and technology studies, human–nonhuman animal studies, and South Asia studies.

Reference Cited

Baynes-Rock, M. 2013. Life and Death in the Multispecies Commons. Social Science Information 52: 210–27.