#AsiaNow Speaks with Nathaniel Roberts

Nate Roberts is Research Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen, and author of To Be Cared For: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum, published by University of California Press and winner of the 2018 AAS Bernard S. Cohn Prize for a first book on South Asia.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The book is about a community of women and men living under conditions of profound poverty and exclusion from the dominant national society. They were called Paraiyars (“Pariahs”), but they said this was just a label others had put on them, and that in reality that had no caste. I begin with their experience of rejection by their own countrymen, and the moral sense they try to make of it. For them, caste is the denial of common humanity and the refusal of care; against it they posed an alternative moral vision based on human vulnerability and the obligation to care for those in need. Yet even within the slum community husbands often failed to care adequately for their wives, and sometimes several women would turn against one woman, resulting in moral isolation and occasionally catastrophic consequences. Locally-developed forms of Pentecostal Christianity provided such women with a language to address these internal contradictions, to pursue an alternative vision of themselves and one another, and to foresee a world without caste or national divisions. And this was all happening in a national context where the conversion of Dalits to “foreign” religions like Christianity is commonly seen as an attack on the nation, and actually outlawed in several states.

What inspired you to research this topic?

Anthropology is the only social science that requires the researcher to actually live with the people they study, be challenged by them, and to begin with the question of what they find important. Why not use the opportunity to connect with people very few others, including other Indians, have ever so much as shared a meal with? Systems of domination work by hiding the truth of social and economic violence from those who benefit from it, and it seemed to me that the academic study of India participated in this process. Dalits are the descendants of slaves, and it is on their hard labor that the comparative privilege of others was built, even today. They account for close to twenty percent of India’s population, but only a fraction of research treats their stories as central. Most of Chennai’s slums are exclusively Dalit ghettos, so that is where I went, and I am deeply grateful that the Bernard S. Cohn Prize committee has found the results worth highlighting.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The hardest part for me was the writing. The book’s argument is actually very complex, and my challenge was to find a way to present it that did not feel complex. This was very difficult for me, and I struggled literally for years to find a mode of presentation that would allow me to do so. I had promised the people in my study I would write a book about their lives, and many reminded me of that promise as I was preparing to leave. For reasons the book itself explores, they were desperate for the world to know that they exist and how they were forced to live. This determined the book’s form, which I tried to write in a way that could convey scholarly arguments to students and to people like my mom, a retired grade school teacher.

What is the funniest or most surprising thing you encountered in the course of researching this book?

There are a few funny incidents in the book, but that’s mainly because the slum dwellers I lived with had such a good sense of humor and liked to laugh at themselves and one another. As for surprises, the biggest was my discovery that the introduction of religious division into a small face-to-face community by means of conversion did not lead automatically to social conflict, mistrust, and moral confusion, as my readings had led me to expect. This was major, because the entire basis on which India’s conversion bans had been upheld by the Supreme Court as consistent with its secular constitution was the assumption that religious conversion threatened “public order.” The Court’s position, however, was based on a priori reasoning, not empirical inquiry. Where had this assumption come from, and how had come to seem self-evident? Such questions led me to the discovery that Gandhi was a dedicated opponent of Dalits adopting Christianity or Islam, and a close reading of his writings on the topic revealed that he was much more of a Hindu nationalist than anyone realized.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

My book is one among a family of related works by scholars who are together charting a major departure in how caste, and all of Indian society, really, are understood. A central theme is our focus on the division between Dalits and non-Dalits, which received theoretical wisdom attempts to understand as merely an extreme manifestation of a more general cultural logic—purity and pollution, for example. We, by contrast, understand the Dalit/non-Dalit divide as fundamentally about political-economy and social domination, and as being both analytically distinct from and of greater significance than much else that falls under the label “caste.” Indeed, we see it as being as central to the history of modern India as slavery and the racism are to America’s. For example The Pariah Problem, by my partner Rupa Viswanath, centers on the implicit alliance between the colonial state and native elites in the exploitation of hereditary agrarian slaves called Pariahs, and the continuation of this legacy in what she calls today’s caste–state nexus. Another important new work is Ground Down by Growth, by Alpa Shah et al., which is the most detailed view yet of the processes by which hereditary outsiders to caste society, Dalits and Adivasis, are kept powerless and super-exploitable under conditions of economic liberalization. There is also a dissertation on the sanitation labor castes, soon to be a book, by Joel Lee, whose profound reflections on embodiment and domination majorly influenced on the final form of my book.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a caste of mostly urban professionals, the Nagarathar, and the existential threat its members have identified in rising rates of out-marriage in combination with the fact that, as urban professionals, their birthrate is not much over two children per couple. Where To Be Cared For investigated caste from the perspective of its victims, this new work tries to understand how a commitment to caste distinction is generated and reproduced from within—to understand caste, in other words, from the perspective of its beneficiaries. This is not so great a leap for me, a white person of the New England WASP caste, no stranger to opportunity hoarding. The intellectual drift of this new research is towards a comparative analytics of race and caste, with particular attention to political economy and to the regulatory role of gender and kinship in caste/race systems.