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Xenotransplantation and borders: two Indian narratives
  1. Meenakshi Srihari
  1. English, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India
  1. Correspondence to Meenakshi Srihari, English, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad 500046, India; meenavid79{at}


This paper examines two Indian texts, Anand Gandhi’s film The Ship of Theseus (2012) and Manjula Padmanabhan’s play Harvest (1998), which deal with complex biopolitical and geopolitical questions around organ transplantation, for their treatment of corporeal, geopolitical and ethical borders.

By dramatising the lives of carriers who are both receivers and donors, the texts enact boundaries, visible and invisible, from both sides. I focus on the carrier of the diseased organ—already a stranger, as Jean-Luc Nancy describes his own failing heart in L’Intrus (2000)—and the carrier of the alien organ and show how these raise moral and ethical questions around organ transplantation. I first argue that these texts foreground biopolitical quandaries even as they narrate the moral economies of transplantation. I then delineate the ways in which the texts employ a posthuman imaginary. The texts raise questions around organ transplantation that while emanating from the invasion of corporeal borders also reflect the permeability of social borders, and while doing so, posit the human in today’s medicalised terrain as a fragmented, multiple self that is embedded in the environment and co-evolves with it.

By addressing the altered sense of self of the ‘body-in-transplant’ through a posthumanist lens that accounts for relationality and the acknowledgement of a plural self, the paper hopes to make a contribution to a better understanding of the vulnerable post-transplant patient.

  • Literature
  • Film
  • Medical humanities

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‘It gives me some kicks though, to know that, a part of me was a part of an animal once, a flame, a star. A part will become mineral, flow in a plant, sprout in a fruit, get pecked by a bird. Every atom of my body will be recycled by the universe. You think you are a person but you are a colony. A microcosm which has ten times more bacteria in its body…than it has human cells.’ Ship of Theseus ‘All dramas are physical but this one is directly about the body, about what it means to have control over one’s own personal container’Manjula Padmanabhan on Harvest ‘To what extent did people need borders, separating the ‘me’ from the ‘not me’ to define themselves as individuals?’ - Otis (1991), Membranes

This paper offers two insights on representations of organ transplantation. First, that the narrative arc of such texts does not have to adhere to an institutional will for narrative closure that tries to reduce biopolitical concerns by employing the language of the gift economy. Second, and drawing from the first, that the donor’s or recipient’s narratives in these texts convey a displaced sense of self after the transplant that thwarts any attempt at closure and encourages the acceptance of a new relational and ‘multiple’ self. The essay will also add through a close reading of these texts that while they examine organ transplantation within India, their concerns are not just biopolitical or restricted to the social conditions within India, but include insights that could help in understanding the personhood of the ‘body-in-transplant’.

The works I have chosen for critical analysis show the struggle of the bodies-in-transplant in disidentifying themselves from the humanist conception of the subject defined by separateness and a distinction between the self and the other (non-human) and a gradual conceding of their posthuman body that emerges through an intimate relation via the organ to the other. The paper attempts to show this affective intimacy and delineate a posthuman imaginary through lenses such as biosentimentality. The works show a gradual shift from premillennial to millennial narratives in the importance given to the kin of the donor, focusing instead on the individual’s choice to donate or be a recipient as primary.

Indian narratives about organ transplantation adopt different narrative arcs. Most recent films have emphasised the criminal aspect of organ transplantation to further their narratives, like Andhadhun (Raghavan 2018) or the series Breathe (Sharma 2018 ) where the mobility of organs involves high criminal activity. Often, such fictional scenarios do very less to aid the process of organ donation as they contain factual errors about the process that could misguide the public as well.1 Institutionally endorsed narratives, on the other hand, are found to be entrenched either in sentimentality or the language of gifting and morality. Phir Zinadagi (Bhave and Sukthankar 2015), literally meaning ‘life, again’, a movie produced by the Zonal Transplant Co-ordination Centre, Pune, and listed in the awareness section of National Organ and Tissue Transplant Organization’s website, both government organisations, for example, emphasises the process of donation—the importance of confirming brain death, waiting for the approval of the kin to donate, the importance of social workers in mediating between the medical institution and the donors/recipients and anxieties around voluntary donation forming its content. The movie is on all levels instructional, and organ donation is seen as narrative closure and a diagnostic cure, reducing the biopolitical concerns of transplantation.

Anand Gandhi's film Ship of Theseus (2012) and Manjula Padmanabhan's play Harvest (1997) both deal with complex biopolitical and geopolitical questions around organ transplantation. The critically acclaimed Ship of Theseus (henceforth SOT), directed by Anand Gandhi (2012), follows three different storylines: a blind Egyptian photographer called Aliya gets a cornea transplant, a monk, Maitreya, who is also an animal rights activist refuses medicine and a liver transplant as a mark of protest against animal testing, and a stockbroker, Navin, who assumes he is the recipient of an illegal kidney transplant pursues a case of organ trafficking. The movie traces the stranger’s journey across corporeal and subjective borders in the photographer; spiritual and moral borders in the monk; and ethical and geopolitical borders in the story of the stockbroker. SOT constructs and reflects on the dichotomies of self and other, a binary that some have attributed to ‘new’ India’s visual culture, where the ‘other’ not only represents poverty, but also an ‘outside space infused with fear, violence and barbarity’ (Paunksnis 2017). SOT is a millennial narrative. While there is enough focus on global biopolitics of organ trade the plot largely revolves around a theme that has rung through aeons of illness-narrative-discourse: disruption. Formulated as a framework to look at chronic illness as an experience in which ‘the structures of everyday life and the forms of knowledge that underpin them are disrupted’ (Bury 1982, 169). SOT introduces characters who see their pretransplant and post-transplant bodies and selves as altered, embracing strangeness and acknowledging that the body has always already been a stranger to itself, the disruption of the transplant bringing this strangeness to the fore.

Harvest sets up a dystopian narrative with the story of a young, unemployed man, Om Prakash, who enters into an agreement with a multinational company called Interplanta Services to sell his organs in exchange for a luxurious life. Om Prakash lives with his mother, his sick brother Jeetu who one infers has syphilis, and his wife Jaya, who is having an affair with Jeetu. Once Om Prakash agrees to selling his organs, his standard of living immediately rises, but the family lives under the constant surveillance of the rich American organ recipient Vic—through his cyborg avatar Ginni, the assumed recipient of the organ.

SOT and Harvest were written more than a decade apart; while they are both performative texts for different media, it is their approach towards representing a human condition over and above the ‘human condition of being Indian’ (Padmanabhan, ‘Introduction’) that brings them together in this analysis. The fact that Harvest was written completely in English with hardly any cultural signifiers, and that SOT meanders between English and Hindi, diving into both Western and Indian philosophy to understand personhood has hardly been a deterrent in the success of the texts on stages and screens worldwide and in the country. While Harvest has seen several productions around the world, SOT won the Best Feature Film National Award in 2014. Looking at these texts together helps in seeing a clear evolution in terms of the concerns of newer—and visionary, in the case of Harvest—representations of transplantation. The essay suggests that while these texts clearly dwell on global biopolitical power dynamics in organ trade, they also stand out for their use of a clear posthuman imaginary. This is done by foregrounding the cultivation of a non-human posthuman body, both into a technological cyborg through the body/machine interaction and that of a more composite posthuman self that acknowledges interspecies relationality. They join the ranks of contemporary fiction such as Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that use the theme of organ transplantation to situate and deconstruct human subjectivity in a postanthropocentric culture. The organ serves as both a natural and social factor that foregrounds boundary confusions, and a constant motif in the texts is how transplanted organs also displace identities, be they of the lived, social or political body.

The vulnerabilities and affective situations of the body-in-transplant are attuned to the discourse of posthumanism via the role of state technologies and how they decide who gets to be human or what the conditions of being human are. When the ‘unrecognizably human emerges to contest, undo reiterate challenge, reinforce or simply run parallel’ to the humanist subject(ification) of the person is the site at which posthumanism comes into the fore for Mccormack (2014), indulging in the ‘critical analysis of human becoming’ (175). A posthumanist ethics for her then, drawing from Butler’s formulations of vulnerability, insists on ‘a vulnerability and indebtedness for, to and with dead human parts, animal matter and technologies of life’ (176).

I propose that the carrier of the organ, or the container, whether recipient or donor, must navigate the same borders that Wald (2008) lists in her work on the outbreak narrative: ‘the permeable and semi permeable borders of the body and the equally permeable borders between social units – among classes, neighbourhoods, municipalities, and even nations’ (2008, 77). At the outset, I use the shared presence of borders and the tropes of the outbreak narrative—invasion, threatened immunities and the loss of corporeal autonomy—to explore organ transplantation. I examine how the totalising anonymity of contagion is frighteningly apparent in organ trade, where the donor is rendered invisible, and argue that the texts attempt to reflect and counter this anonymity by foregrounding distinct individuals as the subjects and victims of organ trade.

The Xenos—intrusion and borders

My arguments posit the organ as the xenos—a word that refers to a ‘stranger’ or a ‘foreigner’, or ‘other in origin’. The foreigner is not always an outside force that attempts to encroach a bounded social/national unit—an ‘enemy’ as the primitive society would call a foreigner, but can be found within oneself as well. Deviant individuals recognise their deviancy—whether in terms of biological sameness (or ableness), gender and sexuality, or nationality and culture as strangers within themselves, and hence locate the uncanny presence of the xenos within the self (Kristeva 1991). The presence of the stranger could be transformative, a point made in the contagion narrative, as explicated in Wald’s description of the carrier of the virus, another xenos to the body:

The carrier is the archetypal stranger, both embodying the danger of microbial invasion … and transforming it into the possibility for rejuvenation and growth… This figure embodies not only the forbidden intrusions, the deep connections, and the most essential bonds of human communion but also the transformative power of communicable disease. (2008, 10)

While the carrier of the virus threatens borders, organ transplant is a necessary invasion, but carrying with it the same anxieties that arise with the contagious virus—not unlike the measures that are used to prevent the outbreak of epidemic, the carrier of the organ is screened and tested to make sure that the alien body (the organ) does not harm the host it goes on to occupy by attacking the immune system.

Nancy and Hanson (2002) complicate both these stances. ‘L’Intrus’ is Nancy’s philosophical meditation on getting a heart transplant. By using the intruder metaphor to describe both his illness and the incoming organ, Nancy can, in the words of Rossini (2017), ‘not only [to] make sense of his own experience but also [to] link his thinking to larger political issues such as migration and border regimes. Thus, his ruminations exceed the level of narcissistic self-observation that mark most pathographies, and, instead connect the individual body to the collective’ (158).

The seepage of emotions from the operative cut—and ‘operation’ has been a vital word in the discourse of tissue economies, as Cohen (1999) has pointed out, to describe the ‘prior operability’ of the bodies and serving as a modality of citizenship (139)—to the environment, to externalised emotions and through pre-emptive grieving is a clear indicator of the relatedness of the corporeal body-in-transplant to spaces and times. This is not to reduce the personhood of the patient to ‘sophisticated machinery … minerals, fauna and flora’ as Sharp (2001) warns (116) but instead to assert the patient is aware and acknowledges an embeddedness in affective and environmental assemblages.

The individual carrier in the two texts is seen as a microcosm of the society, and the permeation of corporeal borders is also an indicator of social borders.

Geopolitical borders and ethics

The texts complicate the anxieties surrounding the reception of the xenos by showing how capitalistic commodification of the body makes illegal buyers a ‘welcome’ intrusion for poor donors. The global market for organ trade raises urgent human rights concerns around the distribution and procurement of organs. This is further complicated by the notion of the organ as a ‘gift’, making it belong to a system of reciprocal obligations, as Marcel Mauss writes in his essay ‘The Gift’. Nancy Scheper-Hughes places these ‘quandaries’ of organ trade around four activities:

(1) consumption, as related to the conditions making it ethically permissible to consume (cannibalise) the body parts of the other, living or dead, and what that compassionate cannibalism entails; (2) consent, especially with respect to the recruitment of the vulnerable as organs-givers and convenient sources of fresh and non-reproducible medical material; (3) coercion, in connection to the demand for sacrificial violence and bodily gifting to fulfil altruistic, kin-based, or economic survivalist needs; and, finally, (4) commodification, or the fragmentation of the body and the sale and distribution of its (alienated) parts.

Wasson 2020 categorises Harvest with other turn-of-the-millenium tissue economies, a reflection of the rampant illegal organ trade in kidney villages known as kidneyvakkams in Chennai and subsequent laws like the Transplantation of Human Organs Act in 1994 that sought to limit the foreign consumption of organs only to be followed by a rise in the disparities in domestic consumption. Wasson’s focus is on the placement of the play within India’s national pride of achieving modernity in medical advances, and its subversion and echoing of the role of gender demographics that came into play in the Indian organ trade market besides its affective representation of presurgical emotional labour and anticipatory mourning (100–102). Wasson pinpoints the ‘haunting’ of the transplant surgery as it affects ‘the subtle intricacies of subsequent life – the relationships that play out within the domestic sphere, the workings of the everyday. The home is mutilated as the heart … transfer economies may indeed be about mourning, piece by piece’ (103).

The title ‘Harvest’ is itself an indicator of a common metaphor that is used for transfer material—Wasson describes it as a term usually used in conditions that foreground the kin of the donors, with the political implication that to harvest would mean that the organ was planted in the body in the first place with the end in mind—a social right (168). Harvest clearly exemplifies most of the bioethical quandaries that Scheper-Hughes (2005) describes. It does so using a tight focus on the scene of ‘outbreak’, that is, the spaces where the transplantation economy occurs: the home and the city. Right from the beginning, the impoverished global south is pitted against an undefeatable and omnipotent West. The very description of Gini, the cyborg the family is led to believe is the recipient, appearing in a ‘Youthful, glamorous. First world manner’ (Act I, Scene ii) is evidence of the binary between the young, capitalistic, apathological West versus the old and sick global South. Stereotypes of the people who make up the global south, such as the old, the sick, the sexually repressed and indulgent play out in the description of the ‘third world’ donors.

Interplanta offers Om’s family a life of material luxury as a barter for a future transplant—a gift in exchange for an obligation. These luxuries put Om’s family on a higher economic status than the others in their apartment, one that prevents their interaction with the community and quarantines them from the others. Members of the family unit who refuse to comply with norms become strangers and outsiders—mirroring the body that has no space for a dysfunctional organ in it. Hence the sick and defiant Jeetu is considered an invasion by a ‘health hazard’. When Om refuses to give his organs at the last moment, Jeetu is coerced into making a sacrifice of himself. This is done citing familial relations and economic benefit to the family (since Jeetu is already sick and does not contribute). The worth of the person in terms of health and productivity comes to determine their value in the donor family. The whole process is dehumanising: the InterPlanta guards deliver not food but ‘fuel’, which is food for inanimate machines and not humans. The pamphlets distributed by them already consider the body a divisible entity, saying that the process will leave ‘one third’ of the donor intact. The person transforms into an object created for the servitude of the richer recipient. The role of the ‘xenos’ is complicated here: an intrusion by a dehumanising Interplanta is welcomed while the diseased Jeetu, part of the family, is deemed an unwanted other.

In SOT, the young stockbroker Navin takes care of his grandmother in a hospital, and is recovering from a kidney transplant himself. When he meets Shankar, a very poor bricklayer whose kidney has been stolen, he assumes that the kidney transplanted into him is Shankar’s. The feeling of guilt does not leave even when he finds out that Shankar’s kidney had been illegally bought by a Swedish recipient. He leaves on the trail of the foreigner, attempting to talk him into giving Shankar his organ back. However, the foreigner ‘buys’ Shankar over by paying him a large amount of money for the kidney. On being confronted, the recipient explains how he was dying and there were no donors; paying a large amount of money to an impoverished donor did not appear unethical to the recipient at the point.2

Navin’s struggle to get his car past innumerable narrow alleys and climb several flights to reach the bricklayer’s home is in direct contrast to the open spaces of Stockholm where he visits the recipient—a figural indicator of the inaccessibility of poor, vulnerable lives hidden from justice versus the those in power who are free from economic burden and untouched by legal ramification. By enabling the trafficking and by justifying it as a service to the poor, the hospital abets the illegal consumption of the organ. Though obtained without the consent of the bricklayer, the exchange of money commodifies the organ, taking advantage of the donor’s vulnerability. The transplant ecology here indicates not merely the movement of the organ but an erosion of dignity as well, a constitutive element of personhood.

Corporeal borders and the cyborged self

This section foregrounds the impeachment of corporeal borders and its repercussions on the sense of self of the carrier, to establish organ transplantation as an event that acknowledges the multiplicity of the body and to highlight the posthuman ethics that are called into question in the becoming of this self.

The multiplicity of the body—that there is no one ‘proper’ body, as Jean-Luc Nancy says in L’Intrus—but only an assemblage, is announced as both theme and question in the opening scene of SOT: ‘As the planks of Theseus’s ship needed repair, it was replaced part by part, up to a point where not a single part from the original ship remained in it, anymore. Is it, then, still the same ship?’. This is followed by a close-up of Aliya’s cornea, taking us into her story through her body. For the ill/disabled, the body is often reduced to the site of disability, an idea that the narrative contests henceforth.

Aliya, an Egyptian photographer with a corneal infection that has rendered her blind uses a technologically improvised camera that enables her to click photographs by telling her the position of various objects. She edits her photographs herself with the help of assistive technology that reads aloud all operations and leads an independent life with her boyfriend in India, managing her chores with some help from him. Aliya compensates for her lack of vision through her intuition to click pictures, shifting focus from an occularcentric perception of aesthetics in photography to one that relies on all senses. Her reliance on the camera invokes the cyborg figure, which by its definition indicates a feedback system between human and machine. Aliya’s comfort with this self that relies on a prosthetic means to ‘document, archive and remember and then to understand, explore and see’ the sights that she cannot because of a corneal infection is asserted when she tells an interviewer that she has no limits: ‘Why is it so amazing to not have limits’ she asks, ‘or no doubts?’. While the word ‘limit’ is commonly a fixed bound, it has also been used to describe the contour of the human form (Oxford English Dictionary), falling in line with the film’s assertion that the biological borders that define the classical idea of the autonomous, bounded human are mutable. The functions of remembering, understanding and seeing pivotal corporeal functions are constitutive of human experience. Aliya’s use of technology as a narrative supplement indicates that she embraces a hybrid, composite self by allowing technology to function as a prosthetic sense.

However, the word limit also implies an omnipresent permission that defines it. While within the limits of Egypt, Aliya is unable to procure a cornea for transplantation because, as she explains to the doctor, ‘it is rare for people to donate eyes back home’, due to religious prejudice.3 Aliya crosses borders to India, where she enlists and waits for a donor. Aliya’s becoming shows the movement and acceptance of different kinds of xenos—that she is accepting of both her cyborged sense and the self receiving the cornea from a foreigner to her land. After the transplant, Aliya looks into a mirror the doctors hold up to her face. The scene is similar to the opening scene with the cornea, except Aliya is more recognisably human now—there is emotion and sentiment in her face as she looks at her reflection and the people gathered around. As Smelik (2016) points out, the cinematic cyborg generally partakes in a scene of self-reparation that involves mirrors, where the machine looks at its reflection to see both its superiority as a ‘perfected’ human being and its disfiguration (112). SOT goes beyond the technologised cyborg to include the composite posthuman who looks into the mirror and reflects on the integrated presence of the xenos with ambiguity. The doctor calls the graft clear and beautiful, and says, ‘It’s even difficult for someone to find out you’re having a new eye’. An inanimate and dead person’s cornea has already been termed ‘new’; similarly, Aliya’s corporeal sense of vision has been renewed.

Aliya’s self-assuredness changes after the transplant as she suddenly finds herself out of depth with her surroundings. This change is not physical, but ontological, as Aliya finds that the return of the ‘organic’ sense of sight has taken away her intuitive and aesthetic sense. The only time she likes her photos post-transplant is when she puts on a blindfold and takes pictures. The change in Aliya’s aesthetic sense post-transplant can neither be reversed nor understood. Aliya’s constant need to revert to her former intuitive self causes her to stumble at her craft, and she embarks on a fresh journey to rediscover her aesthetic sense. Aliya’s story is one of boundary confusions that challenge the notions of ‘natural’ ways of being and becoming, and posthuman vulnerabilities that are spatially determined.

While the technology in Aliya’s story, that is, the camera, enables her to follow her craft, technology in Maitreya’s story: the wind farms, and the snippet of technology shown in Navin’s story: a channel carrying news of a man cycling on water, are ecologically helpful, showing the coexistence rather than domination of one entity over the other.

Cultivation of the posthuman

The xenos in the case of organ transplantation does not only evoke a realisation of multiplicity or relationality with an/other, but effects a change in the very existence of the recipient, rendering them posthuman. As Nayar (2019) puts it,

It is inadequate to think of the body-with-transplants as simply existing in a state of relationality with those from whose body/ies the organs have been harvested. It is the very form-of-life that has been significantly altered in this state of being that qualifies as posthuman. (Genealogy of the Posthuman,

Surveillance, documentation and containment are common themes of the carrier narrative and these acts of power are used in Harvest to cultivate bodies to serve their purpose. Om’s family and their routines are put under strict surveillance. From the prevention of infection—Ginni is alarmed when Jaya feigns a sneeze—down to the mood of the donor and whether the family is smiling enough, Ginni inspects every aspect. Om Prakash and his family are reconstructed in a way—their sense of purpose shifts to attaining perfect biological compatibility to their donor. They are bodies that are being prepared, cultivated for donation.

The completion of the first phase of donation leaves Jeetu in the borderlands of human and posthuman. Fitted with an artificial pair of goggles in the place of his transplanted eyes, Jeethu describes himself as existing in a place ‘worse than death’, ‘a bleached and pitted place. Scars and slashes against infinite blackness. No stillness, no dimensions. No here, no there - ’ (Act 1, Scene iii). The donation deprives Jeethu of basic human functions like sleeping, crying and dreaming.

Once the donors in Harvest are checked for skin and blood compatibility, they are reared for donation. The recipients of the organs in Harvest are modified humans as well, having lost the very human and biological trait of ageing and bearing children. While the science behind this achievement is not explicated, the method to prolong their lives is for ageing and sick men to get a whole-body transplant and reproduce by using surrogate bodies from a poor country.

The narrative blurs the borders between donor and recipient. We discover that Ginni/Vic has adopted Jeetu’s whole body, while still retaining their own mind. In the sci-fi scenario of brain transplantation, where not just individual organs but the whole body is transplanted, but for the brain, the donor of the brain is more prominently the recipient of the body. In Harvest, while Jeetu is donor and Vic recipient, an inversion of roles occurs. Considering that Jeetu is already sick and dying of what is presumably a sexually transmitted disease and has no hope or wish to be a part of normative society, Vic’s offer of his soul being intact while his body is transplanted with Vic’s brain appeals to him. The donor-carriers in Harvest are thus remodelled into bodies whose goals are to be biologically compatible for donation, and thus are posthuman bodies.

As argued, it is not just the form of life, but also personhood that changes. Lesley Sharp explains in Strange Harvest: ‘In the realm of organ transfer, the sharing of body fragments overrides an aversion to hybridity’s monstrous qualities, generating instead not only a strong sense of sameness but strong emotions, too’ (2006, 193). Sharp calls this biosentimentality and uses the term to describe how organ transfer’s uniqueness makes it ‘transcend normative or natural forms of human coupling, where the notion of sameness is at once about shared human fragments and about sentimental kinship structures’ (2006, 193). The texts employ an affective imaginary through the portrayed emotional relationships between humans and others—other humans, technology or non-humans—that arise ‘in the midst of in-between-ness’, as Seigworth and Griggs place affect (I). Jeetu’s initial aversion to the capitalist Interplanta venture is overpowered by his sexual attraction to the cyborged Ginni. Pitted against a life in which he is a condemned man in society and family, and biologically incomplete after his eyes are transplanted, a sexually fulfilling life with Ginni appeals to him. That he can see Ginni and not reality proves to be a strong factor in his agreement to another ambiguous transplant. Another instance of biosentimentality arises when Jaya is similarly attracted to Vic in Jeetu’s body. She realises that the person is no longer Jeetu, but the fact that Jeetu’s body exists intact creates a sentimental connection with Vic. Vic attempts to persuade Jaya to carry his child. For a while, Jaya is swayed; she ignores the ‘hybrid monstrosity’ (Sharp 2006) to look at the biological fragments that Jeetu and Vic shared.

SOT presents a realistic account of altered forms to show that this is a fact of being, that one is always becoming. Maitreya’s belief in SOT is that it is ‘not all humanity that’s equal, but all existence that’s equal’. He realises his connectedness with all other creatures on earth and believes that the regulated form of life that applies to humans ought to extend to other non-human species as well. As an animal rights activist against the use of chemicals on animals for scientific research, his refusal to opt for a transplant arises from his refusal to consume animal-tested medicine. This leads him to refuse transplantation when he is diagnosed with liver cirrhosis—accepting medication and a transplant would for him mean endorsing the very pharmaceutical companies and procedures that take part in animal testing. The dying liver in him becomes an intrusive xenos because it mandates a transplant that his ideology is against. The biological process of waiting to die without a transplant becomes a social statement, and Maitreya’s social persona as an activist permeates through to a biological choice.

Maitreya’s ideology appears to support equal rights of life to human and non-human species, until he hears the attorney Charvaka speak of him as not a person but ‘a colony… A microcosm which has ten times more bacteria in its body… than it has human cells’, a body itself composed of species that inevitably perish as part of biological processes. Biosentimentality, in Maitreya’s case as well, is rendered posthuman when Maitreya’s relationship with his own body and the decisions he takes about (his) life become dependent on his acknowledgement of himself as a non-human posthuman, which could be understood as a decentering of the human by ‘animals, affectivity, bodies, organic and geophysical systems, materiality, or technologies’ (quoted in Clarke and Rossini 2016, 142). A case in point is Jean-Luc Nancy, who in L’Intrus recounts his discovery that immunoglobulins from rabbits are used to suppress defence mechanisms of the body from rejecting grafts. He calls this an ‘anti-human’ application (2002, 9). Even an allotransplant requires the entry of a xenos from a different species. Maitreya argues for the relational capacity of the human to extend to all other species. While Maitreya’s guilt begins as he muses about the animal violence he would purportedly be abetting if he agreed to a transplant, it ebbs and dissipates as Charvaka gives him examples of the natural world existing as a congeries. Maitreya agrees to get a liver transplant. This storyline thus highlights the struggle between the personal and the political being, a difference that is exacerbated by the recognition of the foreigner(s) within. As Donna Cormack puts it,

organ transfer brings to the fore a posthumanist ethics of vulnerability, where the human is always already of that which might be perceived as the inhuman, the dead or the inanimate. The toxicity of such a regime of care renders apparent a posthuman world of dependence on that which simultaneously harms and maintains and sometimes destroys life. (2014, 177).

Biosentimentality here is an attachment between the human recipient and the non-human xenoi, even as it is an attachment between the donor and the cyborg stranger in Harvest. This regime of care then, is a biopolitical act.


In the climax of SOT, all the recipients—Aliya, Navin, the monk and others—meet at a museum to watch a video that their donor, a speleologist from whom all their organs were harvested, had made. The organs are now distributed among people who have all become something else, different from what they were before the transplant. The ship—the donor—is certainly not the same. The reconfigured humans are all posthumans with an altered sense of their embeddedness in the society. These different scenarios in which organ transplants take place, including the quandaries, indicate the emergence of the biocitizen: the neoliberal citizen who adopts frames of biological understanding to ‘act on’ himself (Rose and Novas 2005). New subject positions are assumed by these biocitizens that resist the ‘gift of life’ narrative that ‘donation’ proffers.

While these altered posthumans in the two fictional scenarios are not real, they offer serious insights into understanding the altered nature of post-transplant patients. Posthumanism could be a powerful lens in understanding the vulnerabilities of bodies-in-transplant increasingly becoming aware of the coexistence of non-humans in and around the human form. Besides meandering on the subjective dilemmas surrounding organ transplantation, these texts have also compared the rights of the ‘xenos’ with those of the politically defined human, asking how and why an ‘other’ is called a foreigner at all, a question that has been the subject of heated debate worldwide but more so in India recently. In Strangers to Ourselves, Kristeva dwells on the quality of foreignness and arrives at the positioning of law and the other in a vicious circle to decide the existence of the ‘foreign’. She says, ‘If political regulation or legislation generally speaking define the manner in which we posit, modify, and eventually improve the status of foreigners, they also make up a vicious circle, for it is precisely with respect to laws that foreigners exist’ (1991, 96). She also consequently goes on to note how philosophical and religious movements that go ‘beyond the political definition of man’ vouch for the equal rights of the foreigner and other citizens, rights that are however restricted to a philosophical or religious ghetto.

Maitreya’s petition in the court against animal testing is an illustration of this conceptualisation of foreignness. He brings into contention the fact that animals are denied the rights of life that humans are accorded since they fall into a category outside the political definition of human. At least indirectly, these instances stress on the need for legal positionings on the rights of ‘foreigners’ to warrant inclusivity.

The texts go beyond the event of the transplant itself, and trace the reconfiguration of the self and its relationship with the society after the transplant. The coexistence of body and the environment/body and technology is an imperative theme in these texts of organ transplantation. What these texts call for is a reformulation of the idea of the ‘normal’ human to one that acknowledges that the human has always already been a non-human posthuman in this highly medicalised terrain.

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Not applicable.


1. The MOHAN (Multi Organ Harvesting Aid Network) foundation, a non-government organisation that works with deceased transplantation in India reports about the effect visual media on transplantation can have on the minds of a gullible public: ‘the fear psychosis it creates leads to loss of trust in the system’. (2018)

2. For instance, consider this article based on research conducted by a Swedish hospital: Local 2011) The demand-supply ratio of kidneys in Sweden, with a low population, is skewed. Doctors claim that the inclination towards transplantation instead of dialysis also plays a part.

3. Scholars such as Sherine Hamdy speak of the influence of religion on these processes. The graphic novel Lissa (Hamdy and Nye 2017), for example, uncovers important ethnographic work in Egypt to make the point that the religious notion of the bounded human in Islam can prevent people and institutions from indulging in organ transplantation.



  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.