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In 1832, a woman named Caṅkari Nāki died in Ceylon, and her descendants have been haunted by a curse ever since. One of the first converts of the American Ceylon Mission, Nāki was part of an enslaved caste community unique to the island, and one of the few oppressed-caste members of the mission. The circumstances of her death are unclear; the missionary archive is silent on an event that one can presume would have affected the small Christian community, while the family narrative passed through generations is that Nāki was murdered by members of the locally dominant Vellalar caste after marrying one of their own. In response to this archival erasure, this essay draws on historical methods developed by Saidiya Hartman and Gaiutra Bahadur to be accountable to enslaved and indentured lives and, in Hartman’s words, to “make visible the production of disposable lives.” These methods actively question what we can know from the archives of an oppressor, and for this essay, enable a reading of Nāki’s life at the center of a mission struggling over how to approach caste. Nāki’s story, I argue, helps reveal an underexplored aspect of the interrelationship between caste and slavery in South Asia, and underlines the value of considering South Asian slave narratives as source material into historiographically- and archivally-obscured aspects of dominant caste identity.
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