Between Social Evil and Social Necessity: The Dual Meaning of Kathmandu Dalāls
As part of a larger comparative project on middlemen in South Asia and Latin America, this paper addresses the social category of dalāl in Nepali society with a particular focus on manpower agents. Borrowed from Arabic and Farsi, the term, dalāl, stems from the Semitic root “dal-lam-lam” which carries the meaning of guiding, or pointing something out, or evening directing someone towards something. In South Asian Sanskrit-based languages, it has come to signify brokers, or middlemen traders, of goods and people. In Nepali language and society, dalāl refers to a range of occupations as varied as prostitution pimps and real estate agents. In these various roles, the dalāl serves an in-between role as, for instance, a negotiator between two parties, or a translator of legal and illegal codes and practices, or even a bridge over cultural and national boundaries.
Socially positioned within liminal spaces, dalāls often signify multiple and contradictory social meanings. I am particularly interested in how they can represent social evil and simultaneously serve as providers of services sought by many, particularly in economic sectors not regulated or supplied by the state. As such, they are disdained and needed, distrusted and relied on. Historically, this double meaning extends back to colonial South Asia in which the labor broker (sardar) was understood to be a symbol of oppression and exploitation (Chakrabarty 1989) as well as an “informal network of support” (Basu 2004). Like the sardar, the dalāl has been described in a range of ways from self-interested and corrupt land dealers (Levien 2011) to trusted figures in grain markets (Gregory 1997) in north India. In spite of the negative connotation of the term dalāl, I have found in my own research on land markets in Kathmandu that dalāls also symbolize a certain know-how that is both resented and prized. Particularly in situations where the state is not present or purposefully avoided, the dalāl’s expertise and networks are especially appreciated.
In no case from contemporary Nepal is the double meaning of the dalāl more apparent than in the manpower agents of Kathmandu, who work as recruiters of transnational labor pools, sending Nepali workers around the globe to places as far-flung as India, the Persian Gulf, Southeast and East Asia, and even North America and Europe. Despite a widespread perception of manpower dalāls as exploitative and deceitful (Adhikari 2009-10), even as corrupt ‘conmen’ (Bruslé 2008), the transnational agency and economic promise of labor brokers grants them an attractive power to many people throughout Nepal. I argue that this promise is based on the ability of such agents to transcend social, geographic and legal boundaries established by state power and formal economic structures.