When judging a book by its cover, ask these questions: Is the cover so attractive that you would consider buying the book whatever the story might be like? Or is the cover only worth the price of the book because of what lies beneath it?
I juggled these questions in my head before I started reading Aditi Patil’s Patriarchy and the Pangolin: A Field Guide to Indian Men and Other Species. Because the fact is, I did buy this book for its cover – a painting by Sheela Roy that gives me little thrills of happiness whenever I look at it. But I also bought it in the hope that the story would be as charming as the cover.
Fortunately, I judged the cover correctly. Patriarchy and the Pangolin is a delightful account by a beleaguered conservation researcher of field trips in Gujarat to investigate the impact of the government’s agro-forestry policy on farmers. As she gamely gets to work, she encounters more men with moustaches, bureaucrats and law-makers than actual wild creatures along the way.
The book has no plot of course. It’s the diary of a field researcher, funny, eye-opening and cynical in turns, written in the style of a person who often laughs to stop herself from crying.
Patil is an idealist, a person who quit a well-paying information technology job to help save the world. But her ideas of the things that constitute field research and conservation are similar to the ideas of bureaucrats and men with moustaches only in the most superficial way. The bureaucrats just want to know that their policies work (please note: not ‘if’ the policies work). The mustachioed men cannot bring themselves to communicate with women and in any case have no intention of causing trouble for themselves, courtesy bureaucrats, law enforcers and lawmakers, by discussing any sort of truth. In the face of all this resistance, Patil grits her teeth and gets on with her job, even fighting past her own occasional belief that her work will accomplish nothing.
Her observations, therefore, are often hilarious, especially on those occasions when she tries to escape reality by focusing on something completely unrelated to the issue at hand. This is her way of coping, she explains. “I’ve looked away from problems all my life,” she says in the book. “Not facing them is a skill I’ve developed over the years and it has taken a lot of practice.”
In spite of this self-deprecation, Patil has no choice but to face the problems and in presenting them in this book, she shoves them in our faces. What kind of lives do we lead, her book makes us ask, that we’re so casual about destroying the very things that support our lives on this planet? What kind of lives do we expect to lead that we don’t ensure our governments and their machinery actually work to conserve our only home?
Humour is a fabulous way to get harsh points across. Patil does this brilliantly. As for the cover that got me to buy the book, I’m tearing it off and framing it.