03 Dec 2017

Itinerants in the archives: Traders, Thieves and Vagabonds

Paper Presentation at “Anthropology Matters!” – 116th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington DC. Panel title: “Travel, transformation, and transmission of knowledge I: Tristes Tropiques and the magic of ‘anti-ethnography’”

Aditi Saraf


This paper engages an intriguing document I encountered while conducting fieldwork on trade networks in the Kashmir region. Titled “Linguistic Fragments”, the monograph attempted to study together the secret argots of thieves and traders with the dialect of wandering communities that periodically crisscrossed the Himalayan frontier. The study was commissioned in light of the Foreigners Act of 1864 that sought to identify, assemble and expel itinerant communities from colonial provinces. In a valiant but vain attempt, the author seeks to explain the provenance and pathways of such itinerants through discordant “fragments” (Levi-Strauss 1964 &1972) that defy explanation on their own, but may be deciphered in relation to the neighboring codes of fellow-wanderers, such as thieves and traders. Anxieties regarding the threats that mobility posed to the jurisdictional regimes of the empire have presently congealed into heavily militarized and intransigent borders that obstruct movement on the Himalayan landscape, such as the Line of Control in Kashmir. During fieldwork, the frustrations of my interlocutors – traders – who felt “blocked” by border regimes was reflected in my own inability to travel and follow the mobile circuits I studied. Inspired by Levi-Strauss’s poetic structuralism that makes correspondences across spatial and chronological distances, I use this text as an occasion to layer archival and ethnographic fragments to discern patterns of mobility that were dislodged and effaced to establish the self-presence of nation states, but that leave material and symbolic traces in the ways that political actions are made possible.

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
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