In Amma's Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India / Edition 1

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Overview

In Amma's Healing Room is a compelling study of the life and thought of a female Muslim spiritual healer in Hyderabad, South India. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger describes Amma's practice as a form of vernacular Islam arising in a particular locality, one in which the boundaries between Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity are fluid. In the "healing room," Amma meets a diverse clientele that includes men and women, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, of varied social backgrounds, who bring a wide range of physical, social, and psychological afflictions. Flueckiger collaborated closely with Amma and relates to her at different moments as daughter, disciple, and researcher. The result is a work of insight and compassion that challenges widely held views of religion and gender in India and reveals the creativity of a tradition often portrayed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as singular and monolithic.

Winner, 2007 Georgia Author of the Year award, nonfiction/biography category

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Editorial Reviews

Choice

"This informative study is well illustrated with the author's photographs and immensely suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.... Highly recommended." —Choice

Anthropological Quarterly

"... This is a timely ethnography... in a time in which the high volume of negative religious rhetoric about Islam and in the name of Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity have subsumed the centrality of love in religious teachings and rituals." —Anthropological Quarterly

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
"... In Amma’s Healing Room is a well-written ethnographic study of a complex and sensitive domain of Muslim religious experience and, as such, is a very welcome addition not only to the expanding body of anthropological work on Islam as a world religion. It broadens the anthropological understanding of the various forms taken by Islamic religious authority and offers new insights into the vitality and diversity of Muslim ritual practices in South Asia." —Magnus Marsden, School of Oriental and African Studies, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol.15. 1 March 2009

— Magnus Marsden, School of Oriental and African Studies

History of Religions
"Only rarely are books powerful enough to capture the imaginations and emotions of our students: this is one such book." —Susan Snow Wadley, Syracuse University, History of Religions, Vol. 48.1 May 2009

— Susan Snow Wadley, Syracuse University

The Journal of Religion
"In Amma's Healing Room is a terrific book. Well structured and well written, it will be a great addition to courses on religious ethnography, popular and contemporary Islam, South Asian religions, ritual studies, and gender studies." —the Journal of Religion, 88.2, April 2008
South Asia Research

"This book is a compelling ethnographic study... Flueckiger's work goes a long way towards shattering the categories and fixed identities commonly associated with South Asia.... The emphasis on gender makes this work even more invaluable for anyone trying to study religion in South Asia, or indeed, Islam, as a lived experience." —South Asia Research, V.29.2 July 2009

From the Publisher
"... In Amma’s Healing Room is a well-written ethnographic study of a complex and sensitive domain of Muslim religious experience and, as such, is a very welcome addition not only to the expanding body of anthropological work on Islam as a world religion. It broadens the anthropological understanding of the various forms taken by Islamic religious authority and offers new insights into the vitality and diversity of Muslim ritual practices in South Asia." —Magnus Marsden, School of Oriental and African Studies, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol.15. 1 March 2009

"In Amma's Healing Room is a terrific book. Well structured and well written, it will be a great addition to courses on religious ethnography, popular and contemporary Islam, South Asian religions, ritual studies, and gender studies." —the Journal of Religion, 88.2, April 2008

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute - Magnus Marsden

"... In Amma’s Healing Room is a well-written ethnographic study of a complex and sensitive domain of Muslim religious experience and, as such, is a very welcome addition not only to the expanding body of anthropological work on Islam as a world religion. It broadens the anthropological understanding of the various forms taken by Islamic religious authority and offers new insights into the vitality and diversity of Muslim ritual practices in South Asia." —Magnus Marsden, School of Oriental and African Studies, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol.15. 1 March 2009

History of Religions - Susan Snow Wadley

"Only rarely are books powerful enough to capture the imaginations and emotions of our students: this is one such book." —Susan Snow Wadley, Syracuse University, History of Religions, Vol. 48.1 May 2009

the Journal of Religion

"In Amma's Healing Room is a terrific book. Well structured and well written, it will be a great addition to courses on religious ethnography, popular and contemporary Islam, South Asian religions, ritual studies, and gender studies." —the Journal of Religion, 88.2, April 2008

Choice

"This informative study is well illustrated with the author's photographs and immensely suitable for undergraduate and graduate students.... Highly recommended." —Choice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780253218377
  • Publisher: Indiana University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger is Professor of Religion at Emory University and author of Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India.

Indiana University Press

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Read an Excerpt

In Amma's Healing Room

Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India


By Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2006 Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34721-3



CHAPTER 1

SETTING THE STAGE: THE HEAUNG ROOM, ITS ACTORS, AND ITS RHYTHMS


Patients come by auto, foot, and bus—from villages, Bombay, and Pune. My falita are taken even as far as Dubai.


Amma's healing room is a small crowded bustling crossroads of domestic and public spaces, personae, and discourses, a crossroads of ritual and storytelling, social and economic exchange, and family disputes and negotiations. As one enters the courtyard outside the healing room, one often sees a crowd of patients leaning into the doorway of the room, straining to hear Amma's voice or slip in a personal request out of turn. Other patients sit in small familial groups conversing quietly among themselves, entertaining restless babies or children, exchanging gossip with groups from other parts of the city, and/or sharing with others in the courtyard their stories of suffering and Amma's healing (and periodically giving their own advice to each other). On busy days, they may sit for several hours awaiting their turn. Although every so often a patient or her family might complain about the long wait, especially if a baby is crying inconsolably or if Amma is about to take her hour (or more) lunch break, usually patients resign themselves to waiting for their turn. Many patients spend the greater part of a day simply getting to Amma's neighborhood due to long distances and the vagaries of public transportation. For women in particular, the day is an important social outing, as patients rarely come by themselves. It may serve as an occasion for mothers and married daughters or sisters who live with their in-laws to get together outside the scrutiny of others and the pressure of childcare and meal preparation. For a woman who has recommended Amma to a neighbor and accompanied her, this may be a rare occasion for them to talk with each other beyond the few minutes spent standing at the neighborhood water tap or rounding up their children from their play in the street.


Amma's Neighborhood

Amma lives in a neighborhood of Osmania University's subsidized housing for nonacademic employees. Abba used to work as a clerk in the English Department, carrying books to and from the library, and so forth, a position from which he had retired before I met him in 1989.1 (The family has stayed in university housing after Abba's retirement under the name of one of his brothers, who still works at the university.)

The location of Amma's healing room in a neighborhood on a university campus is significant; in many ways, the university is a kind of liminal social space. Amma's neighborhood is not traditionally Muslim or Hindu; its inhabitants are both. It does not carry a particularly elaborate history or caste/communal ethos, and no one has deep ancestral ties to the land or homes (although this does not make it easier for the university to evict families that no longer have direct employment connections to the university). The university location may provide a certain freedom of access and activity that does not hold true of more-traditional neighborhoods. However, Amma's ritual healing activity itself does not differ significantly from that of pirs located throughout Hyderabad's Old City.

Amma's immediate neighborhood houses neither a mosque nor a Hindu temple, although both are found in the vicinity. There are two mosques within a fiveminute walk from Amma's house in each direction. One mosque is a small older structure with the four minarets characteristic of traditional Hyderabadi architecture, and the other was more recently built in what is sometimes called the Saudi style with just a single minaret. Many of these new mosques have been built with monies from Indian Muslims working in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. Just a little farther down the road is a small dargah, outside of which sits a Muslim baba selling rings with semi-precious stones.

A small shrine to the Hindu goddesses Durga, Pochamma, and Mutyalamma has grown up across the road from Amma's neighborhood under a wide-spreading neem tree, and a much older and larger goddess shrine to the village goddess Yellamma lies at a major intersection in the middle of the university, a ten-minute walk down the road. The lower branches of trees around this shrine are filled with coconut "cradles" tied by couples making vows to the goddess for a cure for infertility. Over the last fifteen years, both shrines have grown considerably larger and more permanent, with cement walls built around the images. The outside walls of the three-goddess shrine are painted with bright images of the goddess Durga, Yellamma carrying pots on her head, and the brother Pota Raju; the surrounding courtyard has been paved with stone. The second shrine has newly built cement walls around its large courtyard; they were added sometime between 1999 and 2003. Each shrine is the site of a major annual festival during which its courtyard is filled with celebrants, but usually they are quiet, with only one or two worshippers present at any given time. Amma's neighborhood itself is also periodically sacralized when, for example, during the annual festival of Ganesh Caturthi, several temporary shrines to the elephant-headed deity are set up or when Islamic devotional qavvali music wafts over the neighborhood throughout the night once every month during Abba's sama [devotional musical gatherings].


Into the Courtyard

Amma's courtyard can be accessed from two directions: one tiny footpath leads from a major road that borders the neighborhood, winding through an overgrown weed patch often used by children as an outdoor latrine (many of the homes do not have indoor latrines) and in between neighboring houses to Amma's healing room. This is the neighborhood/private access road that might even be characterized as "domestic." Most patients come to the courtyard through the other, more public, path off the main road; it is wider and is accessible to 'autos', motorcycles, and the rare car. This side of the courtyard is open to a large open field crisscrossed by footpaths leading to another neighborhood; the open expanse is punctuated by palm trees and the field is overgrown with brush.

Amma and Abba have gradually built on to the living quarters they received from the university, which originally consisted of a single small sleeping room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and the courtyard. They built on another sleeping room for their middle son (Khalid, who is also a pir) and his wife and four children; much later, they built a separate small kitchen for them. The first room they added to the original living quarters was the healing room itself.

The courtyard is approximately 15 by 8 feet, the floor of which is laid with stone slabs; it is roofed by corrugated tin. Two sides of the courtyard are walled with the outside walls of the healing room and a family sleeping room and small verandah; the other two sides are open. Against the outside wall of the healing room is a flagpole that is the site of ritual (the cilla). Both the walls behind the flagpole and its base are painted bright green, and an image of a tiger is painted on the base. Some years the tiger is depicted as springing toward the viewer, roaring, and other years it is standing with a still gaze, as the murals are repainted by different professional artists every year or two. The tiger is associated with the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, who is called "Tiger of God" [sher-i-khuda] and the "First among the Friends of God." On the green-painted wall behind the flagpole are written the names of the founding saints of the Qadiri and Chishti silsilas: Ghaus-e Azam Dastagir and Khwaja Garib Nawaz (one year the artist added cilla mubarak, meaning "blessings on this place, the cilla"). On one wall next to the flagpole is painted the buraq [a winged white horse with the head of a woman, the wings variously painted as folded down or extended out] that carried the Prophet on his night journey and ascent from Jerusalem to heaven, and next to the door of the healing room is a depiction of a horse carrying an open human hand [the panja] under the protection of a royal umbrella. Amma describes the panja as a symbol for the family of the Prophet: Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, his son-in-law Ali, and his grandsons Hassan and Hussein. These are all images common to vernacular Islam in India; they are painted on the walls of many dargahs, shrines, and Muslim healing sites.


The Healing Room

When they arrive at the courtyard, patients first go into Amma's healing room and for 50 paise (only pennies in American currency) receive from Abba (or whoever is tending the small dry-goods store that fills about one-third of the healing room) a little cardboard square with a number written on it, to hold a place in queue. Amma periodically instructs her patients on the importance of keeping order in this way. She instituted this number-queue system in 1990 to bring some order to the increasing numbers of patients that crowd the courtyard. She maintains, "I don't even take my daughter or the sultan without a number. In front of Allah, there is no privilege [rista, lit., connection or relationship]." However, every so often both the cardboard squares and patients in queue get totally out of order ("ahead and behind," age-piche, as Amma says). People are usually quite patient about such mix-ups, but on some days, if they have been waiting for a particularly long time, tempers flare. Mothers with young babies might complain that they should be given preference; the rare wealthy patient who arrives in a car rather than by bus or in an 'auto' might send in an emissary to tell Amma that someone of status is waiting (expecting her to take them out of turn, which she usually does). Sometimes the patients themselves send someone into the healing room out of order if there is a particularly sick child, a feverish moaning woman, or patient who is possessed and not easily controlled. But Amma is rarely sympathetic to complaints about long waits except in the most dramatic of cases; as she responded to one angry patient, "When my work is so grave [gambhir] and important, how do you expect me to do it quickly?"

When I met Amma in 1989, she was seated on the ground behind a low wooden school desk. When I returned to Hyderabad in 1991, she had "moved up" to a comfortable office chair and wooden table. This move coincided with an increase in patient flow and income, but she attributed it primarily to her arthritic knees, which prevented her from easily sitting down and getting up from the floor. Amma is constantly making small improvements to the healing room: one year adding a fluorescent bulb overhead, another year two floor fans, then a cassette player to play devotional qavvali music. At the end of my year with Amma in 1995, I bought her, as a farewell gift, a desk with a linoleum top and drawers. She was particularly excited about the drawers, in which she kept her money, extra sheets of amulets (yet to be cut and folded), and her tins of pan ingredients [betel leaf that various spices are wrapped in and then chewed like tobacco].

Amma makes sure that every possible seating space in the healing room is filled (and she often sees room for another person to squeeze in where others might not); she says she gets restless [becaini] if she sees people standing outside or leaning in the door when there is an empty seat. There is little room for individual privacy in this context, and it is clear that listening to the stories of others who may share a particular patient's difficulty and to stories of Amma's healing success is part of the healing and teaching process. However, when there is no more room for patients to sit and they still continue to crowd into the room, Amma might shout at them to get out of the doorway to let in a little light and air. Without looking up from her work, she frequently cries out, "Hava, hava, hava [air, air, air]! Go wait for your turn outside! Do you think I can breathe in here?"

Amma sits on a large swivel chair with arms behind a desk, around which are arranged a few folding chairs and a wooden bench for the patients whose turns are coming. Stacks of paper slips filled with Arabic writing are arranged across the front of Amma's desk, held down by colorful chipped glass paper weights: one stack will be made into amulets [taviz] for general well-being and one will become specialized fever amulets, one each for morning and evening falita (the slips are rolled up to use as wicks that are soaked in oil and burned). Amma writes all day long: her diagnoses are based on a written mathematical calculation and her prescriptions are written on paper amulets, unleavened bread, saucers, or fresh gourds. As Amma says, "There would be no world without pen and ink." A clipboard, an inkwell, scissors, and one or two ballpoint pens complete the healing paraphernalia on the desktop. The visual impact of the written word (particularly the Arabic written word, Arabi, as Amma calls it) in the healing room is striking for someone familiar with Hindu healing contexts in which the written word is most often absent altogether. The dominance of the written word helps identify the healing room as Muslim space. But as we will see, the written word exists performatively and within a wide oral tradition, and both oral and written words have significance beyond their semantic content.

When I was present, my small black tape recorder sat unobtrusively next to the stacks of amulets. I usually turned it on as soon as I walked in the healing room and turned it off only when I left several hours later; patients sometimes asked about it, but few seemed to care that their conversations were being recorded. Only a handful of patients confidentially whisper their complaints to Amma, and then it is as much because of the presence of other patients as it is because of my tape recorder. Amma was sometimes amused that I would want to record such mundane conversation. But when I explained to her the kind of notes I took from the tape recorder when I got home and that its presence kept me from frantically writing the entire time I was sitting with her, she understood.

At least once an hour, Amma stops all healing activity, relaxes, and pulls out a motley assortment of small tin boxes whose contents she uses to make herself pan. Amma said she developed the habit as a young girl, when a doctor gave her pan as she was recovering from a tonsillectomy (he said it would help to cut down the bleeding). Abba frequently reprimands Amma for taking time out to make pan when the room is filled with patients. However, these breaks from healing action are often occasion for a story. And the stories are not frivolous; they are carefully chosen to establish and reinforce Amma's healing authority, to construct the worldview within which such spiritual healing is possible, and to nurture her relationship with her patients, all elements that are crucial to her successful healing practice.

Amma's is not the only authoritative presence and voice in the healing room. One-third of the healing room is designated for a small provisions store, of which Abba, who was 70 years old when I first met him in 1989, is the storekeeper. His seat is in the middle of the store section, on the floor, and (when the store has been newly stocked) he is often literally obscured by a veil/curtain of snacks, candies, and toys that are tied to strings hanging down from the ceiling. Several such domestic stores, sometimes marked only by the addition of a single shelf on the wall, are sprinkled through the neighborhood; most are supervised by women. In fact, Amma says it was she who first set up the store as a young mother. Abba took over as primary shopkeeper only after his retirement from university employment. After his death and until the dissolution of the store a few years later, Amma's sixteen-year-old granddaughter sat in Abba's place.

Abba's shop stocks spices, soap, incense, single cigarettes, matches, oil, eggs, cheap candies and snacks, and tiny plastic toys. Neighborhood children run in and out of the room throughout the day on errands for their mothers to buy an egg, a cup of sugar, a couple of pinches of tea leaves. Abba sometimes jokes with them and lets them linger over a decision about which toy or piece of candy to buy with the five or ten paise change left to them; other times he impatiently yells at them to take their purchase and run home. He also sells ingredients needed for Amma's nonwritten prescriptions, such as black seeds, iron nails, incense, and lemons. Amma and Abba seem to keep their healing and shop accounts separate. When Amma periodically wants to offer a friend or visitor (field-worker included) a snack from the shop, she takes money from her healing coffer and gives it to Abba to purchase the snack. In his seat as storekeeper, Abba's primary concern does not, however, seem to be actually selling supplies; in fact, the profit margin from the sales serves only as a small supplement to the family income. (In 1995, Abba told me that the profit margin for the store was Rs. 1 for every Rs. 10 worth of goods sold.)


(Continues...)

Excerpted from In Amma's Healing Room by Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger. Copyright © 2006 Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
A Note on Transliteration

Introduction: Called to Amma's Courtyard
1. Setting the Stage: The Healing Room, Its Actors, and Its Rhythms
2. The Healing System
3. Patient Narratives in the Healing Room
4. Negotiating Gender in the Healing Room
5. Religious Identities at the Crossroads
6. Immersed in Remembrance and Song: Religious Identities, Authority, and Gender at the Sam?
Conclusion: Vernacular Islam Embedded in Relationships
Epilogue

Appendix: Death and Difference: A Conversation
Glossary
Notes
Select Bibliography
Index

Indiana University Press

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