Goroka: The Shared Account in Assam’s Kingdom of Magic

Sean Dowdy

My dissertation, tentatively titled “Goroka: The Shared Account in Assam’s Kingdom of Magic,” investigates how, why, and in what ways emergent political and economic relationships and the forces mobilized in coincidence with them have become new sources of (and perspectives on) both prosperity and intersubjective memory in Assam—a state in India’s northeastern periphery beleaguered by so-called “ethnonationalist” violence. Following recent descriptions of Assam’s political and economic climate as “durable disorder” (Baruah 2005), this project asks how resilient disorder, segmentation, and misfortune might also elicit, engage, and actively produce counteragents of fortune and cosmological order. To explore this question ethnographically, the dissertation describes and analyzes exchange dynamics that are marked by ritual praxis, cosmogony, questions of kinship obligations, questions of obligations to strangers, ecology, acts of sorcery, the growing confluence and necessity of chiefly and kingly authority, and the manipulation of impersonal/cosmological forces (e.g., xokti or life-giving power; bhagyo or alloted fortune; xonman or deferential honor).

Rather than rehearsing yet another spin on the so-called “informal economy,” my approach to questions of multiple exchange circuits, moral economies, and putatively discreet spheres of value creation turns, instead, on the local idiom of “the account” (hisap)—a collective material practice that funnels political-economic activity into meaningful historical and cosmological classifications. Hence the title goroka, a term in the Axomiya language that signifies an “instep” or “imprint” (a term used to speak of history metaphorically, but has literal reference to the foot pedal on a loom). Accounting is more than just a device for reckoning and documenting exchange—it is a total art of creating intersubjetive memory from shared events.

My ethnography focuses, specifically, on accounting repertoires and activities in the Mayong Kingdom in Central Assam—a place infamous for assault sorcery and tantrism, and now becoming a central node in transregional economic networks. It is a place where, one could say, black magic and black markets find mutual ground. Moreover, in Mayong, like many “erstwhile” kingdoms in Assam, chiefly and kingly authority has come to find new charismatic forms of expression—feeding into discourses of political segmentation, on one hand, but also into discourses of how societies are necessarily built out of strangers. The effect is an interesting one—since rejuvenated kingships end up producing more strangers and more “ethnicities” by claiming cultural and political autonomy while, at the same time, challenging the very core of ethnonationalism as living examples of cosmopolitan belonging.

The SSD Summer grant enabled me to complete technical and analytical work on my dissertation, and afforded me the time and resources to complete drafts of two chapters—one on cosmologics of name giving and name sharing, and one on the circulation of magic money. The grant allowed me to defer the costs of (and reserve the time required to) translate, transcribe, and code approximately 30 hours of interviews collected between June 2012 and May 2014. These interviews were largely with ritual experts—namely, sorcerers (bej), chiefs, priests, astrologers, and other figures who are responsible for kinds of value creation. From these interviews, I have already begun to make sense of how two locally marked kinds of accounting (what we may call “secret” vs. “audited” accounts) find ultimate value in shared public revelation—in movements from esoteric meaning to exoteric pragmatics, from predation to gift, and from political segmentation to political alliance. Using the resources from the grant, I was also able to finish, with assistance from colleague of mine in Assam, an English translation of the kingly chronicles of Mayong, which is one of the only existing primary historical documents on the kingdom.