Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

A Secret in the Oxford Sense: Thieves and the Rhetoric of Mystification in Western India

Anastasia Piliavskya1 c1

a1 King's College, Cambridge

Common sense commodifies the secret, alienating the value of its content from its social context. But a secret perfectly kept dies in its circle of initiates. Few secrets, however, are dead on arrival, since their seduction lies precisely in their revelation. Most things said to be hidden are in fact nurtured through the processes of calculated concealment, allusion, and revelation, the secrets propagating themselves through circles of conspiracy, rumor, and gossip. As Tim Jenkins observed, “What is concealed, and the reasons for its concealment, serve to distract attention from the dynamic of the secret: what at first sight appears to be static and indeed dead, possessed by and known to only a few, kept in some dark place, in fact has a life and movement of its own; the secret propagates itself through a structure of secret and betrayal” (1999: 225–26).

(Online publication March 29 2011)




Acknowledgments: Field and archival research for this essay, conducted between January 2005 and December 2008, was funded by the Rhodes Trust, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and subsidiary grants from the Richard Ellis Katz Fund, the Ada Draper Fund, the Oxford Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, and Wolfson College (Oxford). Special thanks is due Paul Dresch, who read multiple drafts of this essay, and to Filippo Osella, Crispin Bates, Roeland de Wilde, Jonathan Norton, Paul Gledhill, the participants of seminars at the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, Cambridge, Sussex, and the London School of Economics, three anonymous CSSH reviewers, and David Akin for their comments. My biggest and ever growing debt is to the Karmawat, Chhattrapal, Sisodiya, Nat, and Singh families, whose generosity, patience, and good humor made my work in Rajasthan possible. Needless to say, responsibility for any shortcomings remains with me. Transcription and diacritical notation follows J. T. Platts’ A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English (1884), replacing “ć” with “ch” for readability. I use pseudonyms for place and personal names throughout to preserve confidentiality.