by Susan Haris
The most famous frog poem in modern Indian poetry in English is perhaps The Frog and the Nightingale by Vikram Seth. In the poem, a frog in Bingle Bog relentlessly croaks every night, much to the annoyance of other creatures. Their efforts to silence him prove futile until a nightingale arrives and captivates the audience with her beautiful songs, earning their applause. The frog is embittered by her success and manipulates her by offering to mentor her in singing, insisting her song needs improvement and should follow current trends. Under the frog’s strenuous training, the nightingale ultimately pushes herself to exhaustion and dies. The frog is once again the sole singer of Bingle Bog.
In the poem, the other animal denizens of Bingle Bog loathe the frog’s singing and appreciate the nightingale’s melodies. The frog, too, is impressed by the nightingale’s voice, which is why he sets his evil plan into motion. Unfortunately, the poor nightingale remains unaware of how good her singing is.
The poem is often read allegorically as offering a moral lesson about not allowing others to take advantage of our insecurities and how criticism can stifle talent. Very little is said about the frog himself—the progenitor of the cutting, ultimately fatal, criticism—or the multiple modes of multispecies communication in the poem. What if there was a failure in multispecies communication that prevented the nightingale from fully grasping the wonder of her audience? What if there were another nightingale in the poem or a benevolent frog?
The problem humans face as species is this: I am open only to some species, and only some species are open to me. In other words, we may connect only to some members of a particular species and not to others and vice versa. We expect to connect with dogs but not say, spiders.
What can frustrate such assumptions? What must an animal do to cast doubt about whether we have judged them too quickly? How must humans respond to such a gesture should an animal make it? What strange things must happen?
Animals are othered because we don’t speak the same language, but we do have secret and open friendships with domesticated animals. There are other common contract-languages such as work and companionship that enables us to translate what animals are saying. As the translators, we have an unparalleled power of interpretation; we can even say they are not saying anything at all. This is also evidenced in the lack of consensus in what constitutes as animal sentience or animal abuse.
This essay is concerned with an associated challenge: How to subjectify those beings entirely different from us?
On a rainy morning of July 2023, I had my first encounter with Indian bullfrogs, Hoplobatrachus tigerinus, in the city forest of Sanjay Van, located in South Delhi. Indian bullfrogs appear quite ordinary until the mating season arrives. These frogs, typically green with shades of blue and brown, transform into a lifejacket yellow colour with Persian blue vocal sacs. They are so gaudy that they do not look real.
On top of that, there’s their sounds. You could say we heard them before we saw them.
Calvin and I traced the raucous calls to a swamp where they were everywhere. When we ventured closer to the source of the commotion, I realised that this site was not only the site of the mating calls but also the site of sex.
I hope I knew more about tadpoles as a child, but my personal knowledge of frogs had shrunk so much in the last few years that I only remembered that they hop and croak. I had to look up to corroborate what I saw: males gather at breeding sites, calling loudly to attract females. Once a female chooses a mate, the male clasps onto her in a behaviour known as amplexus. During amplexus, the male continues to call, and the female lays her eggs. The male fertilizes the eggs externally as they are released. These events unfolded in the way biology texts describe so simply and elegantly that they almost sound routine.
Except what was happening in the swamp was simultaneously elegant and frenzied. What I was seeing was an explosive breeding event. Explosive breeding is when animals like frogs gather for a few days in large numbers in a particular water source, often formed by rainfall, to reproduce. Indian bullfrogs are quite a large species that can grow to be 17 centimetres (6.7 inches) in size. They are the largest frog species in India.
As we watched, the male frogs were frantically trying to get the attention of the females, and skirmishes arose when some kicked others or tried to stay on top of the female frogs in the water. They executed perfect frog kicks, and you could see clearly that they were clasping the ladies underneath in a perfect grip. The swamp was filled with mated couples and single males desperately swimming around, searching for an opportunity. Everyone looked very serious, and the gravitas was reflected in the pools of water covered in eggs.
But what to make of these strange phenomena and their stranger biological characterisations? Are frogs following the laws of nature to madly, wildly reproduce? There seems to be two levels at which meanings could flow. On one hand, these anurans are opportunistic, explosive breeders, exhibiting what is decidedly a species characteristic. On the other hand, the very words opportunistic and explosive suggest an ambition and energy that leaves something open for interpretation, and which does not enervate their social worlds and make them mere followers of biological laws that we have deduced and inferred.
They knew we were there, of course. They would go very quiet when we got too close, and it was only when we retreated that they would start up again. The sounds, it could be said, were affected by our presence. But that is not really a personal connection, because in a way, they are responding to humanity as a species and predator. Often, in social sciences, we are thinking of animals as species, when sometimes I think what we want are personal connections. Something inalienably alien with another species. That somehow seems to make things even more real, making clear what is really at stake, bringing to us the possibility of communication and subjectivity. Now that would make possible ethics; but instead, we have to confront groups, taxa, species.
Anna Tsing (2013) discusses more-than-human sociality that includes both animal and human sociality. She is resisting precisely a tendency to make animal social worlds look nonexistent and to attribute a dynamic agency and intentionality to only the human. By sociality, Tsing seems to refer to those connections and social relations that are overlooked in our notions of sociality and our social histories. Her main point is that if we are trying to understand shared social worlds in which both humans and animals live, then it would be useful to bring together ethnography and natural history to understand how other species contribute to a common more-than-human sociality where animals are not simply non-reactive.
We watched the frogs for a while, documenting the scene with photos and videos. Just before leaving, Calvin, on a whim, recorded their vocalizations and played them back using a portable speaker he happened to have with him. To our horror and great delight, the frogs responded to our playback.
As we played the recording, the bog filled with echo upon echo, with the frogs starting to make their frantic mating calls alongside their own already recorded sounds that we were playing back to them. The effect was orchestral, as the frogs seemed to be attempting to match the loudness of the speaker. We felt completely surrounded, and I half-expected them to start moving toward us, much like in a scene from a zombie movie. Instead, we were part of this acoustic community, if only for a few moments.
Abhijith, who studies frogs (see 2023), told me that it is possible they were making louder sounds to appear louder to the females. Perhaps—but perhaps it was a form of communication. Earlier, when I had attempted to approach the frogs for a closer look, they had quickly hopped away, showing no desire for physical proximity. However, when we stood at the very same spot and played their sounds back to them, they responded. It was an intense harmony, and the music seemed to vibrate in the air.
We repeated this interaction several times to ensure it wasn’t a mere coincidence or a one-time event, but we weren’t really doing it for replicability. We repeated it because it was astounding every time when there was pin drop silence, and then all of a sudden, we heard their earnest response to us when we played their music back to them.
What struck me was that it was a collective response—species communicating with species, as it wasn’t just one or two frogs; it was all the frogs in the bog. The uncharitable explanation would be that the frogs thought there were other frogs and did not recognise their own voices, or that it was another characteristic of this acoustic community that did not differentiate between technologically mediated sounds and other sounds in their single-minded focus on drowning out other sounds in the “cocktail party” to make themselves heard. Yet another response to this mirroring would be to see it a delicate connection that is forged through subjectivities.
No doubt, our subjectivities were involved. I was very happy. Calvin and I were thrilled and their response to us was better than us simply watching them. I distinctly remember Calvin saying, “wait, let me try something” before he took out the speaker to record their sounds and play them back, and then the frogs singing with their bulging blue throats. If I close my eyes, I can even imagine the sounds.
But what of the frogs themselves? In a multispecies history that acknowledges more-than-human sociality, it is possible to trace their presence there to the socio-political history of the city forest of Sanjay Van. This forest provides a sanctuary for myriad animals in the heart of an unbelievably polluted Delhi and the rugged terrain of the Aravalli range that the forest is part of, which provides space for the pools to form once it rains. Further, the forest has well-maintained paths for the citizenry who come for morning and evening walks, with the sylvan depths providing the animal denizens with privacy. The sociality, in the human and animal use of this space, overlaps. But is it enough to elevate their social worlds with sociality? Could they also be subjective social worlds?
In a poem (2022) on this question, I considered how multispecies ethnography pivots on the ethnographer’s humanness to narrate interspecies relationships, and I suggested that perhaps in our thick descriptions we also ought to speak about the violence that animals suffer in addition to the social histories that they play central roles in. That is only possible if we grant animal worlds subjectivities, and my poem was an attempt to do that. If depriving them of sociality renders animals nonreactive, depriving them of subjectivity also similarly renders them nonresponsive. Or, to put it another way, if sociality equips animals as members of our common social worlds, then subjectivity equips them as members of our affective worlds.
Despret (2008) points out that it is as a “we” that we speak for animals, and that this “we” is human which is not only representing animals but also act as representative. An example of this is a description of frog behaviour which also tells us what such behaviour means. Hence, the power is in our hands to talk about animal subjectivities at all.
When we came across another pool of water with the bullfrogs, we recorded them and played it back to them—and this time, they were all quiet. This group of frogs had no truck with us. This meant that the earlier response was group-specific, occurring in that specific place and time, in our presence. Our inability to elicit a response from the second group of similarly aroused Indian bullfrogs made our first encounter so much important—so much stranger and more magical.
To return to the frog poem that I opened with: it abounds in animal subjectivities, evident from the words that are used. Other creatures loathe the frog’s voice and they are enraptured by the nightingale’s voice. Everyone expresses and communicates their feelings to each other, despite the frog’s deception of the nightingale. In the poem, the plot emanates from the structure of attributed subjectivities that determine who is jealous, who is good, who is evil and so on. More importantly, it is the structure of subjectivities that makes communication happen in the poem and move the story forward.
Now, I don’t know if I’ll go so far as to say the bullfrogs I met felt these emotions toward us – but in the glimmerings of their response, I am inclined to use sympathetic adjectives.
A.V, Abhijith & Mukherjee, Shomen (2023) Calling site preference reduces masking interference of acoustic signals among sympatric bush frogs and facilitates coexistence. 10.1101/2023.09.25.559099.
Despret, Vinciane (2008) “The becomings of subjectivity in animal worlds.” Subjectivity 23: 123-139.
Haris, Susan (2022) How to Perform a Reality Check: Multispecies Ethnography and Becoming Human. Anthropology and Humanism 47(2): 434-437
Tsing, Anna L. (2013) More than human sociality. Anthropology and Nature 14(1): 27-42.
About the author
Susan Haris is a multispecies ethnographer and the cofounder of the Indian Animal Studies Collective.
This article is part of our season on Strange Natures.
 The cocktail party problem refers to the difficulty of trying to understand multiple conversations at a busy party where the challenge is that of separating and identifying individual sound sources in a mixture of overlapping voices.