We Were Adivasis: Aspiration in an Indian Scheduled Tribe 

We Were Adivasis takes readers into the daily lives and aspirations of the Dhanka of Rajasthan—a community that challenges anthropological imaginations. Since the 1950s, the Dhanka have enjoyed affirmative action recognition as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) of India. However, the subjects of Megan Moodie’s ethnography do not dwell in the forested margins of the nation-state where India’s ethnographic state (Dirks 2001) expects its tribes, but instead in the concrete environs of the city of Jaipur. There, the Dhanka have leveraged their ST status to forge a distinctively urban, tribal life. Like other subaltern groups camouflaged in the bustle of modern cities, the Dhanka have relied on ingenuity and collective willingness to make it in the “underneath of the city” (Mbembe & Nuttall 2015, cited in Moodie, 69). But times are changing. India’s neoliberal reforms—glossed typically as economic liberalization—have eroded the Dhanka’s key relationship to the state. With young men no longer able to attain the government jobs of their forefathers, the economic foundations of Dhanka identity and aspirations are crumbling.  

We Were Adivasis voyages into these transformations to provide a poignant—and theoretically savvy—account of what it means to be Dhanka now. From the book’s title to its final words, we encounter a community that has avowedly moved on from its adivasi past, but whose future remains categorically uncertain. Asking what Dhanka men and women hope for when they envision themselves and the future, Moodie sheds valuable light on how aspiration steadies and reshapes the Dhanka through these liminal times. Aspiration figures here as a necessarily gendered and generational question, which Moodie examines through a twinned—and remarkable—attention to Dhanka femininity and masculinity. Offering intimate portrayals of Dhanka women, men, girls, and boys, We Were Adivasis reveals the antinomies, possibilities, and “cruel optimisms” (Berlant 2011) that inflect Dhanka subjectivities today. Moodie’s feminist ethnography marks a significant contribution to our understandings of gender, social justice, and upward mobility in India and beyond.  

The book’s narrative develops over the course of eight succinct chapters. In the first chapter, Moodie introduces the Dhanka, their place in India’s sprawling affirmative action system, and her key attention to aspiration. The book’s second chapter asks “Who are the Dhanka?”—a crucial concern for a community haunted by the prospects of losing their Scheduled Tribe status. The analysis offers cogent exegesis of various sources on the Dhanka—1960s anthropologies, government ethnographic reports, native ethnologies, etc.—to show how tenuously (and creatively) the Dhanka have inhabited the ‘tribal slot’ through time (Li 2000). The third chapter, “What it Takes?” marks the start of Moodie’s interleaving attentions to Dhanka masculinity and femininity. We begin by meeting older Dhanka men who, through what Moodie terms collective willingness, helped their community find their niche as an urban tribe. The fourth chapter, “A Good Woman,” explores women’s notions of respectability. Written in dialogue with Dalit Feminism, Moodie argues that what Dhanka women want is concrete homes and love from their husbands. These banal hopes may trouble more liberating feminist ideals, but, for the Dhanka, they are integral to “an emergent femininity, and attendant conjugality, that is at once tribal, Rajasthani, and modern” (79).  

“A Traffic in Marriage,” the book’s fifth chapter, examines the practice of samuhik vivaha, wherein the Dhanka marry off their youth in batches to avoid the trappings of dowry payment. Since 2001, this invented tradition (Hobsbawm & Ranger 1983) has served a variety of economic and social purposes, not the least of which is providing the cultural stuff to anchor Dhanka’s claims to tribal identity, thus shoring up their ST status in the eyes of the state. “Wedding Ambivalence,” the sixth chapter, lends voice to the young brides of samuhik vivaha. Moodie uses the ambivalence these brides harbor toward marriage to make an important intervention in the feminist debates about agency (c.f Mahmood 2005; Lukose 2009; Berlant 2008). The penultimate chapter, “Of Contracts and Kaluga,” engages masculinity in flux. With the Indian state privatizing its public sectors, young Dhanka men can no longer depend on the governmental jobs that their fathers used to build their community. Privatization has led to an era of contracts, wherein short-term employment and timepass are the realities of young men’s days (Jeffries 2008). As neoliberalism erodes the traditional pillars of Dhanka identity, the prospects look bleak. Nevertheless, “in this era of cynicism,” Moodie insists, “it is important to document hope” (180). Toward that end, she concludes her monograph with two case studies—first, a sketch of recent agitations for social justice in Rajasthan; second, a synopsis of India’s Right to Information Act and its import to the Dhanka—to illustrate the powers of subalterns to forge a world otherwise.  

We Were Adivasis breaks meaningful ground in the study of affirmative action and the politics of recognition in South Asia (e.g. Kapila 2008; Middleton 2015; Rao 2009; Shah & Shneiderman et al 2013; Xaxa 2008). The twinned attention to gender and generational difference yields timely insight into the shifting “political imaginaries of marked citizens” (172). Along the way, Moodie offers deft theoretical commentary, wherein she allows the Dhanka to speak ethnographic truth to some of our most dearly held concepts and ideals. This, ultimately, is the book’s greatest promise and provocation.  

Despite its sophistication, We Were Adivasis remains immanently readable and teachable. Moodie’s gift for character development lends her arguments rare intimacy. We meet Dhanka elders, wives, struggling husbands, and youths, whose lives interweave to create a compelling tapestry of a community doing its best to navigate uncertain times. The book will find a productive place on reading lists on gender, indigeneity, social justice, subalternity, postcolonial governance, neoliberalism, and a range of other subjects cutting across the disciplines. Written in elegant, honest prose and pushing methodological and conceptual boundaries, We Were Adivasis is a feminist ethnography of the highest order.  

Townsend Middleton, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

Moodie, Megan.  We Were Adivasis: Aspiration in an Indian Scheduled Tribe. University of Chicago Press, 2015. Read more at University of Chicago press. 

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