To Be Cared For

The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum

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Nathaniel Roberts
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     2017.
     316 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520288829.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In academic circles we are constantly hearing buzz words such as “impact,” “publicly engaged scholarship,” and the like. We are asked to give an account for how our scholarly research directly impinges on the world beyond academia. Nathaniel Roberts, in the course of his ethnographic fieldwork in the Anbu Nagar slum in Chennai, India, is questioned not only by funding bodies and colleagues but also by the residents of Anbu Nagar. The slum dwellers saw Roberts, who lived in the slum and became actively involved in the life of the community, as someone who “really cares,” “listens,” and “sees”—but precisely what, they queried him, would he do with his research?

With phenomenological sensitivity and deep understanding of social contexts, Roberts writes about various events that he heard of and/or observed during his time in Anbu Nagar. Roberts carried out ethnographic research over a lengthy time period (he first conducted fifteen months of preliminary fieldwork and then lived alongside his interlocutors for a number of months) and the depth and breadth of his research is reflected in his insightful descriptions and analyses. He succeeds in exploring the relationship between morality and the ways that Christianity flourishes in slum cultures.

Roberts draws our attention to the reality that most social scientific scholarship on India has, until recently, focused on the lives, beliefs, and practices of upper-caste people. His To Be Cared For is different in that it focuses on the lives of Dalit slum dwellers. Roberts thus joins an existing circle of scholars (Kerry San Chirico, Chad Bauman, Darren Duerksen, C.J. Kuttiyanikkal, and others) whose recent works have focused on individuals and communities of low-caste social status. But one particularly unique and notable feature of Roberts’s work is his intensive, long-term ethnographic fieldwork and his subsequent consistent use of captivating vignettes which draw the reader into the events and individuals of Anbu Nagar. Chapters 1 to 3 make use of several vignettes as launching pads into Roberts’s discussion of the modalities of rejection and belonging, and the ways these two states of being are intertwined in Anbu Nagar.

Chapter 4 is rich in historical and political contextualization. Roberts interrogates some taken-for-granted assumptions about religion, nationalism, religious conversion, secularism, and the like. Roberts’s ability to thoroughly situate events in their complicated historical, political, and socio-cultural contexts continually suggests a depth of familiarity with the relevant literature and standard scholarly perspectives on a wide range of topics. This chapter re-examines the ways that conversion and religion have been understood by broader Indian society.

Chapter 5 explores similar themes as chapter 4, but this time these are grounded in the stories of individuals in Anbu Nagar. It contains a number of examples where Roberts, in returning to his ethnographic data, points out discrepancies between scholarly theories and the lived realities of the residents. Chapters 6 and 7 offer in-depth descriptions and analyses of the inner workings of Anbu Nagar’s religious practices. Overall, Roberts’s qualitative research is noteworthy for not only the amount of time spent in the field and the breadth of his interviews, but also the depth of self-reflexivity he deploys throughout his fieldwork. One example of this critical stance is the way he employed a research assistant to conduct certain interviews in order to cross-check the information and determine whether there were any marked differences between what was told to Roberts (evidently a foreigner) and what was shared with a fellow Indian.

This ethnography is a valuable contribution and it will be especially useful for scholars in fields such as Indian Christianity, Hindu-Christian studies, and the anthropology of Christianity, among others. Roberts’s methodological and theoretical approaches will also prompt helpful reflection for those interested in the intersection of theology and anthropology. But, along with Roberts, who was asked the question of relevance repeatedly while in the field, we might ask ourselves whether the book’s contributions extend beyond specific subject areas of academic study. For my part, I believe they do—powerfully so—and I think Roberts should be applauded for his scholarly abilities in this regard. Many of us would follow Foucault in arguing that knowledge is power, and that it can be wielded to rule, subjugate, and oppress. But knowledge which is used to further empathy can also be a powerful force of positive change. In the final pages of the book, recounting some moments with other residents of Anbu Nagar, Roberts states that he hopes that the book “would be able to teach people who read it something about our world they did not already know…and maybe, somehow some good will come out of it” (248).

To Be Cared For contains the seeds of “some good” and I recommend it to a wide variety of audiences, academic and non-academic alike. Those who read through its pages to further their knowledge and understanding of its many topics will be impressed by Roberts’s thoroughness and erudition. Those who read it with curiosity, empathy, and eagerness to learn about people and ways of living that are, in all likelihood, quite different than their own will be challenged by the stories they encounter and, I believe, will also be changed for the better.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nadya Pohran is a doctoral candidate in divinity at Cambridge University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nathaniel Roberts is research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Germany. 

Keywords: 

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