An ethnographic look at rituals across class and status among Malyasian Tamils

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Copyright © 2006, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.


Based on nearly three years of ethnographic fieldwork in the little-studied Malaysian Tamil community, this book captures the challenges and dilemmas facing an ethnic and religious minority in the context of state-driven ethnic and religious nationalism. A resurgence of Tamil Hindu religious practice is analyzed within contemporary Malaysia in light of a state-driven ideology of modernist Islam. Bringing together detailed and sometimes personal ethnographic accounts of Tamil public and private rituals across a broad spectrum of class and status, the contemporary dynamics of ethnic politics and relations in Malaysia is understood through various historical and political economic forces in the postcolonial period. In doing so, Andrew C. Willford shows how contemporary Tamil Hindu subjectivity in Malaysia has a distinct historical trajectory, and argues that the figure of the “Indian” (Tamil) is one of the missing keys in understanding a broader pattern of ethnic relations and nationalism in this country. The result is an intimate portrait of the anxieties and desires of a diasporic community.

"Andrew Willford's Cage of Freedom gives us a provocative look at the compulsive and eruptive dimensions of ethno-religious and ethno-nationalist identification in the Tamil enclaves of contemporary Malaysia. Drawing from psychoanalytic and phenomenological approaches, Willford brings us face to face with 'the nation’s spirit' and 'the ethnic uncanny,' the disturbing twin apparitions that cloak the foundational emptiness of identity. This book reminds us that ethno-nationalist identity and ideology have a haunting psychological force."
—Kenneth M. George, Editor of Journal of Asian Studies, and Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"Cage of Freedom is an exceptionally good, uncommonly rich ethnography of the Tamil community in Malaysia, among the best ever ethnographies of this area ever written, based in thorough field research and clearly informed by an attentive ear and an astute observational consciousness. We learn much about the lives and experiences, the hopes and fantasies of individual Tamils . . . This book is an exemplary act of anthropological integrity; its insistence on reading, on interrogating the conclusions and perceptions that local people have about themselves is all too rare in anthropology today. Willford may perhaps teach students, once again, that the project of anthropology is a critical one, a relentlessly questioning one."
—Rosalind C. Morris, Professor of Anthropology and Associate Director for the Center for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University
"An ethnographically rich and theoretically sophisticated book, offering a complex analysis of the forces underlying religious revival among the Tamil and more broadly 'Indian' population of Malaysia. Willford focuses on an unstudied problem: the peculiar predicament faced by diasporic Indians in Southeast Asia. This imaginative study stands to make a substantial contribution to thinking across a range of scholarly fields."
—Danilyn Rutherford, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago
Andrew C. Willford is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at Cornell University.

Andrew Willford is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Asian Studies at Cornell University.