- The Cow in the Elevator: An Anthropology of Wonder by Tulasi Srinivas
Tulasi Srinivas's The Cow in the Elevator is part lament and part celebration. It laments the ways in which the Indian city of Bangalore has changed since the mid-1990s, when its transformation into India's IT capital first began and then rapidly took off, placing a strain on infrastructure, the availability of land, and on life in general, even as opportunities for the middle classes blossomed. The celebratory aspect stems from what Srinivas describes as the ritual experimentation and ethical creativity of (especially) priests, but also "localites" or residents of the Malleshwaram neighborhood as they strive both to take up opportunities and cope with unsettling changes, often through recourse to the divine. Here, the temples of Malleswaram and Hindu practice are central. The book thus oscillates between two key foci: firstly, loss from what Srinivas calls "neo-liberal modernity," and secondly, remaking and recentering through Hindu practice and ritual. The book also serves as an homage to Srinivas's late father—the well-known anthropologist M. N. Srinivas.
"Wonder" is a central focus of the book. Describing wonder as a transformative, revelatory, and celebratory emotion that people strive to generate and inhabit in ways that allow them both to live in the moment and go beyond it, Srinivas attempts to knit together the various strands that make up the book by paying attention to wonderful or wonder-generating moments. These attempts are most successful when grounded in the ethnography—for example, in the descriptions of priests' attempts to make divinity wonderfully accessible through recourse to technology—generating [End Page 1677] "aah" moments and drawing people to temples and ritual events beyond temples. The invocation of wonder works less well in moments that include taking a cow up in an elevator to a new flat to perform a house-warming ceremony. While wonderful to Srinivas, the occasion seems simply routine, if rather labor-intensive, to her informants who organize and carry out the ritual. Here, rather than wonder, what we see is a safeguarding of investment (in an expensive flat) through ritual practice.
Srinivas tells us in her acknowledgments that the book was almost 20 years in the making, beginning as an "unwieldy text on ritual life" and gradually morphing into its current form as an anthropology of wonder, i.e., an attempt "to use wonder to think about globalisation from a different perspective." I think this works best in the chapter entitled, "In God We Trust: Economies of Wonder and Philosophies of Debt." Here, we see the chief priest of the Ganesha temple decorate the deity with garlands of currency from different parts of the world and muse about money, wealth, poverty, and debt. This ethnographically rich chapter moves elegantly through the power of spectacle: how one can elicit wonder through density, sparkling surfaces, and excess, and how these are related to the making of wealth and the kinds of debt one can accrue—to human or institutional lenders on the one hand, and to god or as karmic debt on the other.
The book is divided into five chapters in addition to an Introduction and Conclusion. Each chapter focuses on a different mode of wonder-making and seeking, while also anchoring this search for wonder in quotidian and future-oriented uncertainties and aspirations. Thus, Chapter 1 takes us through the changing streets of Malleshwaram—a once gracious neighborhood subject now to land grabs, new luxury apartments, changing topographies, and attempts to navigate these. The same kinds of themes—of loss and the emergence of unsettling yet exciting potentialities that need human resourcefulness and divine help—recur in every chapter, each focusing on a different but related aspect of life in Malleshwaram. These include the processional movement of temple deities through the neighborhood (Chapter 2); the promise and im/materiality of money and a priestly take on the philosophy of debt (Chapter 3); the incorporation of new technologies in the presentation and reception of embodied deities by people who are charmed by and yet...