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Accepted paper:

Quotidian Courage: Everyday embodiments of fear and the commitment to life in the Sundarbans forest of India


Megnaa Mehtta (University of Sheffield)

Paper short abstract:

In contrast to a set of liberal institutions interested in the preservation of biological life, through an analysis of the embodiments of fear and courage this paper shows how the willingness to die in a forest of tigers in the Sundarbans might instead be a commitment to a form of life and labour.

Paper long abstract:

The Sundarbans are a melange of rivers, islands, and mangrove forests located at the mouth of the Bengal Delta. These forests teem with animals, both human and non-humans: a large population of Bengal tigers; Bonbibi, a Muslim deity who is the protectress of the forest; and 4.5 million people. Every year over 50-100 fishermen die from attacking tigers. This is a dangerous landscape that elicits immense fear. Fishing, collecting crabs and honey in these forests requires courage. The Forest Department supported by a lobby of conservation NGOs restricts fishers from entering the forests accusing them of risking their lives. Despite huge funds spent on alternative livelihoods and forest patrols, Sundarban residents' willingness to die in a forest of tigers undercuts the state's supreme and absolute power over life. This apparatus of "protection" is not unique to the Forest Department but its logics are akin to the formation of modern states that premise their existence on their role as protectors of life. The liberal state interested in the preservation of biological life finds it impossible to understand a form of work that comes to be defined by embodiments of fear and forms of quotidian courage. Contrary to the narrative propagated by the conservation apparatus, and through an understanding of the embodiments and the politics of emotions such as fear, risk and courage, this paper asks how might the willingness to die be born of a commitment—ethical, social, and political—to a particular value of life and labour?

panel AA09
The Politics of Emotion across Anthropology and Geography