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The Smell of Death

Theft, Disgust and Ritual Practice in Central Lombok, Indonesia

Kari G. Telle

In this essay I examine a form of stealing that people in rural Sasak communities on the island of Lombok find deeply problematic because of its intimate nature: theft of which they suspect that someone in their own hamlet or village is culpable. In the large village in central Lombok where I have carried out fieldwork, theft that is attributed to a so-called ‘neighbourhood thief’ is said to produce a foul smell (bais) that begins to ooze out from where the theft occurred, enveloping the neighbourhood in a putrid stench.1 This smell is particularly intense when the thief is not caught in the act of stealing, but manages to slip away. In connection with a theft of two heirloom daggers and several pieces of old cloth that occurred one Saturday night in June 2001 and of which a close neighbour soon emerged as a suspect, Bapen Seni, a man who lives nearby, commented in disgust: ‘Now this neighbourhood really stinks [bais gubuk]! The stench is smelled even far away, it cannot be sealed off.’

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Rohan Bastin, Marit Brendbekken, René Devisch, Allen Feldman, Ørnulf Gulbrandsen, Bruce Kapferer, Michael Lambek, Knut Rio and Kari G. Telle

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