Through the Looking Glass: The Involuntary Cosmopolitanism of Black Magic and Possession in Modi’s New India

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Kathinka Frøystad


In spite of Modi’s promise of good days (acche din) in 2014, many Indians still struggle with unemployment, low income, poor health and other difficulties. Though some problems eventually find solutions and middle-class metropolitans increasingly seek help from gurus and psychologists, long-term misfortune and disturbances are still frequently attributed to black magic or possession. Drawing on anthropological fieldwork in Kanpur and Bareilly, this article examines the unintended cosmopolitan effects of such practices, which occasionally unfold in ways that traverse and unsettle official religious boundaries, even in polarized times. Heuristically contrasting Modi to Alice in Wonderland, the article spells out the double bind of many low-income Hindus who seek supernatural assistance in times of crisis: should they follow the logic of inexpensive efficacy, even if necessitating engagement with unfamiliar ritual worlds in heterotopic spaces associated with the religious other? Or should they rather follow the emergent Hindu nationalist logic of Hindu exclusivism, according to which ritual remedies beyond a Hindu ritual repertoire would be inappropriate? The persisting prevalence of the former logic under Modi is illustrated with three cases, two of which are interrelated. Firstly, we meet a female professional seeking help against suspected black magic from a rustic Sufi-Muslim healer. Secondly, we meet a Kali devotee seeking help against spirits that disturbed his career and marriage in a renowned Sufi-Muslim dargah. The final case shows how familial neglect, economic hardship and an interreligious marriage conducted two generations earlier came together in a case of possession. The cosmopolitan effects of such instances, the article argues, lie in their tendency to form an anti-structural, heterotopic counterweight to aggressive Hindu nationalism.

counterweight to aggressive Hindu nationalism.

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Boundaries and crossings: Religious fluidity in Modi’s India