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Global Nepalis: Religion, culture, and community in a new and old diaspora, edited by David N Gellner and Sondra L Hausner; Vernacular Religion: Cultural politics, community belonging, and personal practice in the UK’s Nepali diaspora, edited by David N Gellner

T B Subba
p. 150-154

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  • Global Nepalis: Religion, culture, and community in a new and old diaspora, edited by David N Gellner and Sondra L Hausner. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018, 580 pp., ISBN-13 978-0-19-948192-7
  • Vernacular Religion: Cultural politics, community belonging, and personal practice in the UK’s Nepali diaspora, edited by David N Gellner. Kathmandu: Vajra Books and the Centre for Nepal Studies UK, 2019, 261 pp., 25 B/W photos, ISBN 978-9937-733-04-5

1In the preface to Vernacular Religion (hereafter referred to as VR), David N. Gellner, its editor and a scholar who has arguably made one of the most significant anthropological contributions to the study of Nepal and the Nepali diaspora, informs the reader that the essays in the volume ‘should be read in conjunction with the much larger companion volume, Global Nepalis...’ (p. xii). This review therefore covers both volumes. Of course, without the Covid‑19 lockdown it would have taken much longer to read the 580 pages of Global Nepalis (hereafter referred to as GN), no matter how interesting each chapter of the volume is.

2The two books under review resulted from the same project for which David N. Gellner was principal investigator and Sondra L. Hausner co-investigator. As may be expected, a number of authors contributed to both volumes, and the focus of both books is the Nepali diaspora. However, before presenting my review of the two books, I, as a Nepali, wish to take this opportunity to thank both Gellner and Hausner for making the Nepalis academically more visible across the world than they would perhaps otherwise be and for creating a benchmark for future studies on Nepalis. I do not need to say much about the editors to my fellow Nepali readers for they already know them fairly well.

3GN contains 20 articles, written singly or jointly by 21 scholars, seven of whom also contributed to VR, which contains ten previously published chapters, none of which feature in GN – a great relief to the reviewer. Of the ten articles in VR, eight are written by Gellner and Hausner, either singly or jointly with one or more of the following contributors, viz., Bal Gopal Shrestha, Chandra Laksamba, Krishna P. Adhikari, Mitra Pariyar and Florence Gurung. Furthermore, five of the 20 articles in GN were jointly written, as were half of the 10 articles in VR. In the latter, Gellner co-authored five articles and Hausner four. In fact, either one or both of them have co-written eight of the ten articles, which leads me to wonder whether the book could have been published as an authored rather than edited volume: this would have substantially increased its value.

4Ten countries feature in GN: India, Myanmar, Thailand, Fiji, Singapore, Bahrain, Qatar, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Nepal. The other volume covers three countries, ie the United Kingdom, Belgium and India, although the subtitle of the book mentions only the first of these. GN is undoubtedly a much better edited book, which has been thoroughly proofread, and contains very few repetitions compared to VR. Fortunately, there is no repetition between the two volumes. And even where the same author has written about the same community in the two volumes, the focus is very different.

5One of the interesting dimensions that GN brings to the table is the categorisation of the Nepali diaspora into ‘old’ and ‘new’. We all know that no categorisation is perfect, as all categorisations include a fair amount of arbitrariness. The same applies to the categorisation of the Nepali diaspora into ‘old’ and ‘new’, whether we focus our attention on the number of people, the time of their migration or the reasons for their migrating to a given country. I expected Gellner to dwell a little longer on the concept of diaspora, on how it has evolved over the years and on how it has assumed different hues in different contexts across the globe. And yet he would perhaps not have concluded his ‘Introduction’ by stating that in most places Nepalis do not constitute a diaspora because, for him, the second and later generations are, as reported by Brubaker, wholly assimilated (p. 24). A lack of assimilation is certainly an important dimension of diaspora, but this is certainly not the only one, nor perhaps the most important one. Furthermore, assimilation into host societies does not mean that migrants have forgotten what they call ‘home’ or have abandoned the desire to return home or that the host population may continue to perceive them as a diaspora, even though Nepalis themselves may not necessarily see themselves that way.

6In my view, the GN volume comes short of perfection and is definitely the best I have read on the Nepali diaspora. However, a few human errors have slipped in. For instance, Gellner and Hausner, in their Preface to the volume, write (p. xvi) that ‘the term “Nepali” is consciously avoided’ in Sikkim, which is incorrect: what is avoided in Sikkim is the term ‘Gorkha’. The editors could also perhaps encourage the contributors to include a fair amount of vernacular literature, which is rather lacking since only about 20 of more than 600 references are in Nepali. Sushma Joshi’s spelling of ‘yoma’ on page 92, in the last paragraph, is incorrect: the correct spelling is Yuma, which in the Limbu language means grandmother. Similarly, Bandita Sijapati, on page 255, spells ‘Vhootee’ for Bhote, which is a derogatory version of the more respectable ‘Bhutia’, and ‘Gardan’ for gaardhan, which means hidden treasure. In addition, Florence Gurung, on page 365, misspells dhyangro as ‘dangro’. Finally, the United Kingdom, Britain and England are used interchangeably in this volume, though they do not mean the same thing.

7Turning to the VR volume, one of the key arguments it puts forward is that no one-to-one correlation can be drawn between one’s religious identity and one’s religious practice. The book also shows that, while religious identities and practices are less complex at the two extremes of the Nepali social hierarchy, people occupying the middle rung display a complex orientation towards their religious beliefs and practices. The data presented in various chapters of the book indicates that multiple religious orientations exist in most Kirata communities, who not only identify themselves as Hindu and Buddhist, but also profess their animist and reformist religious identities. Their practices also show overlapping allegiances at individual and family level. Whereas most countries do not consider more than one religious category for one individual for the purpose of the census, religious practice can be – and the data on Nepalis in the United Kingdom and Belgium shows this – a lot more complex than one would expect from the monolithic categories that represent them. Gellner and Hausner rightly conclude: ‘Thus we cannot refer to religion tout court without specifying whether one is referring to religion as a category or religion in practice’ (p. 28). According to them, not specifying this could be dubbed as ‘methodological religionism’ (p. 30).

8The book evokes an interesting issue regarding categories, whereby people, when put under pressure, claim to belong to a religion which is not in fact their own. A prime example of this occurred during the Panchayat period in Nepal (1960-1990) when certain groups that were subjected to pressure declared themselves ‘Hindu’ in the hope that their job applications would be accepted. One may also recall how some non-Nepalis in Darjeeling even claimed that their mother tongue was Nepali during the 1971 Census, in support of the movement for the inclusion of the Nepali language in the VIII Schedule to the Constitution of India. Gellner and Hausner therefore rightly insist that ‘...category and practice must be analysed as separate and separately malleable elements of religion’ (p. 50). In other words, we cannot relegate religion to the realm of category or to the realm of practice alone, as the two in a sense define and overlap one another.

9On a rather negative note, I think the main problem with VR is repetition. The repetitions become more prominent, and even a little irritating, as one gets further into the book. However, there is perhaps little the editors could have done to avoid these repetitions since the editors are also, as mentioned above, the principal authors of eight of the book’s ten chapters. There are also a few other minor editorial errors, which Vajra Books could have corrected. I would, for instance, like to draw the reader’s attention to the following mistakes: in line 3 on page 51 the word ‘either’ should appear only once; in line 10 on page 142 the word ‘me’ should be ‘us’ since the chapter is written by three persons; in footnote 11 on page 154, Nakane and Arora do not actually claim to represent the ‘Nepali point of view’; in line 8 on page 155, Thami or Thangmi is spelt ‘Thamil’; the translation in line 5, page 184, should read ‘there aren’t any, there won’t be any either’ instead of ‘there aren’t any, nor would it be right’; on page 239, Asian Affairs should be italicised; and on page 247, Pahilo Pahar is literally translated as ‘First Watch’, though its cultural translation is ‘dawn’.

10These are minor errors that can creep into any book. Otherwise, one can only wonder at the quality of the articles the editors have put together in this volume. Edited volumes usually have some good and some bad articles, but this is certainly not the case of this book. I would also like to express my appreciation to the editors for including a set of three articles at the end of the GN volume, which in a sense ties up the loose ends in all the chapters of the volume, leaving nothing for further speculation. The volume ends with a rather reflexive, insightful Afterword penned by Hausner.

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References

Bibliographical reference

T B Subba, « Global Nepalis: Religion, culture, and community in a new and old diaspora, edited by David N Gellner and Sondra L Hausner; Vernacular Religion: Cultural politics, community belonging, and personal practice in the UK’s Nepali diaspora, edited by David N Gellner », European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 55 | 2020, 150-154.

Electronic reference

T B Subba, « Global Nepalis: Religion, culture, and community in a new and old diaspora, edited by David N Gellner and Sondra L Hausner; Vernacular Religion: Cultural politics, community belonging, and personal practice in the UK’s Nepali diaspora, edited by David N Gellner », European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [Online], 55 | 2020, Online since 16 March 2022, connection on 07 December 2022. URL : http://preo.u-bourgogne.fr/ebhr/index.php?id=278

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About the author

T B Subba

Professor Tanka B. Subba teaches anthropology at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India. His latest book, edited with A.C. Sinha, is titled Nepali Diaspora in a Globalised Era (Routledge, 2016).

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue European Bulletin of Himalayan Research sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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