In the novel Nights at the Circus, set at the end of the 19th century in Western Europe, Angela Carter writes: ‘In a secular age an authentic miracle must purport to be a hoax in order to gain credit in the world’ (1994: 16). Carter’s novel, which follows a colourful group of characters travelling from London eventually ending up in Siberia, is defined by a tension between a new secular age of reason and doubt versus the suspension of reason and to believe in the extraordinary. It is a novel that explores wonder. But, what about situations where wonder avoids that binary between the secular and religious? Between doubt and belief? What does one do when the two polarities meld into each other in the experience of wonder? This approach is central to Tulasi Srinivas’s ethnography The Cow in the Elevator. Set in the city of Bangalore, Srinivas’s book explores the place of religion in enabling Hindus to come to terms with changes in social structure and urban space in the face of neo-liberalism.
Drawing on several years of fieldwork at temples and middle class residential colonies in Bangalore, Srinivas draws on her engagement, interaction and participation with the faithful of different generations who patronize temples, as well as the priests. Engaging with Priests as ritual experts and other participants, Srinivas shows how critical wonder, as an experience, as affect, and as an ontological problem enables the engagement with social change. The question of wonder instead complicates and breaks the easy divide between the secular and the religious, in this case among caste Hindus in Bangalore. The title of the book itself draws upon an actual incident where the cow, an animal of sacral significance for Hindus is taken in an elevator to bless flats in new residential colonies in Bangalore ostensibly representing a new economic order. While the scene is potentially absurd, it also shows how seamlessly different practices are creatively juxtaposed.
The first two chapters introduce the sites and the cast of the book, especially the temple priests who become co-travellers with Srinivas rather than being just informants. What comes out clearly in the first part of the book is the sense of a city in transition and how its residents deal with this sense of flux, where the city was ‘in a process of world making’ (p. 37). Paying close attention to new forms of language early on, when she writes for example about ‘Dead Endu Ganesha’, a deity of a shrine that emerged in an unused space, Srinivas is taking the reader to the role creativity plays in world making as a constant process. She shows how the priests demonstrate the seamless incorporation of new ethics, aesthetics and new technologies into what otherwise may be seen as being tradition. Examples of using American corn as temple decoration, imported from the West and introduced into consumption practices by the diaspora and local participants in the post-liberalized economy in India, to showering petals over temples via helicopter are just two of many that show the immense possibilities of ritual action. What clearly in these experiments in which the priests and others are a part of, is how wonder, whether it is in relation to the divine or to the secular, is a process of constant work. The priests are engaged in working towards experiences and situations which evoke wonder, which becomes essential in coming to terms with divine and secular life. Hence a divide between what is ostensibly traditional or modern misses the point in wonder discourses and practices.