A landmark in the anthropology of religion

When Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak’s “Can the subaltern speak?” was celebrated as a rupture in representational politics, a folklorist is said to have retorted: “More importantly, can the bourgeois listen?”

To Be Cared For: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum by Nathaniel Roberts has been picked to inaugurate a new feature in Contemporary South Asia. The journal has started a book forum where multiple reviews are commissioned on a chosen book, and the author engages with each of them in his response. We’re glad we published a book that provokes conversation across dry, disciplinary boundaries.

Roberts’ work challenges dominant anthropological understandings of religion as a matter of culture and identity, as well as nationalist narratives of Christianity as a “foreign” ideology that disrupts local communities. Far from being a divisive force, conversion integrates the slum community—Christians and Hindus alike—by addressing hidden moral fault lines that subtly pit residents against one another in a national context that renders Dalits outsiders in their own land. In the networks of care that the women of Anbu Nagar, a Dalit slum in the industrial sprawl of north Chennai, imagine into being, we are offered a quiet riposte to the commercialization of care work and emotional labour in neoliberal economies.

Contemporary South Asia has made the book forum open access till the end of March 2017.  Here’s a sample from what the reviewers have to say:

The expected categories of discussion – ‘religion’, ‘caste’ or even Pentecostalism – have to give way to core ideas of poverty, humanity and care. This turns out to be an instrument for some particularly sensitive and engaging ethnographic work.

—David Mosse, “An intricate anthropology of care”

He also offers a timely and important analysis of the dominant discourse about conversion in postcolonial India, showing how liberal and secular positions have been shaped by upper-caste and Hindu majoritarian views about religious identity. Nationalism is being overtly conflated with Hinduism, and all those who dissent –Dalits, Muslims, leftists, and feminists – are being attacked and abused, physically and verbally. Roberts reminds us that such a conflation has long operated as a kind of common sense.

—Ania Loomba, “Recasting the self”

 The encouragement that Pentecostalism gives to the development of literacy amongst women will in time give rise to a critical politics in the slum. Then, perhaps, the slum dwellers of Chennai will become a ‘dangerous class’ in a different sense – that of posing a challenge to the ruling classes.

—John Harriss, “Caste and class and the urban poor”

Anthropologists are generally ill-equipped to incorporate God into their analysis, and therefore fail to represent the world as their informants see it. In contrast to these critiques, Roberts produces an ethnography that, following what he calls the ‘theological realism’ of his informants, leaves room for divine agency, without making a case for theism as such. This is no mean feat, and represents a significant contribution to the anthropology of religion.

—Naomi Haynes, “Conversion beyond Rice Christians”

In his response, Roberts engaged with the arguments made by all reviewers and stressed how new conceptualizations of religious identity hold immense possibility in the face of welfarist appeasement.

I describe the variant possibility I discovered as theological realism. This, together with three other axioms I work out in chapter four, defines the basic logic of religion as such in Anbu Nagar – the shared background against which Christianity and Hinduism appear as alternatives. Cracking this code was by far the most difficult part of my research, but it was only when I had done so that I could fully understand the violence of anti-conversion laws built on culturalist and identitarian premises. For these laws serve not merely to strengthen a dominant Hindu majority at the expense of India’s minority communities. Sold as an emergency measure for safeguarding the religious autonomy of Dalits from foreign imposition, they in reality impose religious norms that were themselves entirely foreign to my subjects’ religious understandings. This is one form of ‘care’ the people of Anbu Nagar never asked for.

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