A fascinating narrative

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India by Martine van Woerkens (translated from the French by Catherine Tihanyi); The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2002; pages xvi + 360, $24.

THIS is an easy book to read, but not so easy a book to review. The deceptive ease of the narration beguiles the reader into missing the complexity of the theme, the sophistication of the connections made. There is also a most unusual and disarming acknowledgement by the author of the creative collaboration she enjoyed with her translator, making one wonder what the original is like. One can, indeed one does, read the book at a stretch. The scholarly apparatus, the appendix, the notes, the bibliography and even the index are formidable but not intimidatingly so. Some of them like the `Lexicon' at the end of the volume are central to and positively enrich the narrative, and delight the reader. The striking illustrations, most of them gory and perhaps also stereotypical drawings, are also an essential part of the narrative. The marshalling of a vast variety of sources, Indian and foreign, and the felicity and insight with which the author has made the connections evoke compelling admiration.

The central argument of her narrative, put simply, perhaps even crudely, is that the humanitarian (albeit stern) enterprise of suppressing cruel and evil practices like "thuggery" (and, one may add other evil practices too such as "Suttee" (sati), suppressed around the same period) was also part of another, more calculated, enterprise - of building an empire in India. On the face of it, there is little original about making such a connection between doing good to others and doing better for oneself - the rationale for every act of conquest and subjugation. What is original is the choice of the world within and outside of this study, an area of Indian life and experience marked by obscurity and mystique, dread and superstition and blood rites, yes, greed and cruelty and murder, too, to delineate some uncharted aspects of this encounter between the colonial regime and what, in the totality of things, seems a very small criminal element working on the fringes.

The physical area covered, very broadly central India and its peripheries, is vast, though only a part of a much vaster country which, at the period covered (early 19th century) was in the process of being annexed in stages by the colonial rulers. The process has been described and analysed in detail by numerous historians as well as by imaginative writers and artists.

Throughout the narrative, one senses larger historical and political tensions, with the various powerful provincial kingdoms, Muslim and Hindu, asserting their autonomy consequent on the weakening of the hold of the Mughal empire, even while warily eyeing the threats - and promises - held out by the new and strange rulers, inexorably spreading their control from their coastal enclaves into the heartland of "Hindoostan". No doubt some would argue that those taking over were only bigger thugs with more powerful resources. The author, however, resists the temptation to push historical revisionism or the subaltern view beyond a point. She maintains the dividing line between thuggery and the more romanticised `banditry'.

The narrative is thus set in a context where, in the author's words, "the loci of power were proliferating" throughout India. Indeed, these were not merely proliferating but also shifting to the advantage of the new masters. The phenomenon of thuggery and its suppression is situated in this context of a colonial regime and administration irresistibly evolving into an empire, where the suppression of thuggery, a desirable objective intended to benefit the ordinary people and ensure good governance, was another part of the expansion and consolidation of power and control already being exercised.

The narrative is rich, complex, fascinating. It draws from a variety of sources, real and constructed, touching on history, ethnography, scholarly disquisitions on the culture and mores of the natives, analysis of their strange languages, gripping stories of gory crimes and clinical accounts of retribution, strange cults and practices, elements of `orientalism' both described and debunked, issues of religion and language and ethnicity which with minor modifications seem to have their relevance even now, over a century and a half later - all these are presented and analysed by the author, both as apparently disinterested endeavours to ensure good governance and as the rationale for acquiring an empire.

Above all is the reality and metaphor of travel, central to the narrative, a necessary component, only which will enable a thug to engage in his profession. The narrative evokes the attractions and perils of long journeys on roads, still the only means of communication for both the rulers and the ruled, the journeys ending in or more frequently cut short by violence, the encounters between strangers on the road, the innocent and the crafty, the perpetrators and the victims, the illusions and reality of the persona involved in such encounters, all an essential part of any journey, which of its very nature normally end casually, but in the case of an encounter with a thug abruptly and with extreme violence.

The perils have not ended; they manifest themselves not so much in new forms but in forms long familiar as urban and rural legends and realities. There surely is a connection and continuity between the shadowy figures of this narrative, sinister as also pathetic, and their far more sophisticated successors of modern times, like a Charles Sobhraj or the friendly fellow traveller in a railway compartment who drugs and robs and kills for profit.

WHO were the thugs? Notwithstanding the experienced and imagined ways in which they impinged on the natives and the rulers, they were after all very ordinary people, mostly poor, not very different from the rest of the community. Many probably served a `Master thug', that is one who employed individuals to perform as thugs and would be solely beholden to him, rather like the `Master tailor' or the `Master cobbler' who for a wage employs other tailors or cobblers as coolie labour. The picture on page 27 of the book, one of the most striking, showing a richly garbed merchant in conversation with a mendicant in the robes traditional to that vocation, reminds one of the lines in King Lear: "Hark, in thine ear; change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?" Indeed, the caption to the picture suggests that the mendicant too could be a thug.

The narrative is dominated by the figure of Major General Sir William Henry Sleeman (1788-1856), the colonial soldier who simultaneously functioned as civil administrator, who spearheaded the anti-thug operations in the 1830s. Nearly 1,500 thugs were convicted and hanged or transported for life during these operations. Sleeman's extensive writings - beginning with his anonymous contribution to the Calcutta Literary Gazette of October 3, 1830, which brought for the first time to public (colonial) notice the practice of thuggery - constitute the primary source for any narrative about the thugs. Appropriately, the book begins with an account of the letter under the sub-heading, "The Discovery of Thugs". That letter locates the religious and ideological origins of the practice of ritual murder, the essence of thuggery, in the worship of Kali at her temple in Vindhyachal near Mirzapur, noting that the thugs were `camping undisturbed at the very door of the British'. The insolence of locating themselves on the very edge of British India as much as their crimes, whose victims were people like themselves, was provocation enough to bring upon the thugs their retribution.

A most fascinating aspect of the narrative is the linkage established between the military and administrative measures taken against thuggery and the literary expression given to them (`Imaginary Discourse') by Philip Meadows Taylor (1808-76) in Confessions of a Thug (1839). Meadows Taylor's work, the publication of which coincided with the conclusion of the anti-thug operations and is now another `primary source' on the subject, is based entirely on the confessional statement of Ameer Ali, a convicted thug. Though the first, this was not the only instance of Life influencing Art and, in due course, vice versa. The later part of the book under review develops this theme of the romanticisation of the thug narrative in several other continuously re-invented artistic forms, including visual arts, dance and music, and Hollywood productions.

Finally, perhaps the most complex part of the narrative is the 20-page-long section at the end of the volume entitled `Thug Lexicon or Ramasee', a collection of about 700 words constituting a unique and arcane system of internal communication of the thugs, an exclusive kind of thieves' argot and idiom. The Lexicon prepared by Van Woerkens categorises and rearranges these words, what Sleeman called the `peculiar language' of the thugs, under 21 heads, listing them thematically rather in the manner of a thesaurus. She also presents a brief morphological and semantic analysis of the vocabulary.

And what a world these words conceal even more than what they reveal! Take for example Ramasee, a most interesting word. It means both `to wander, to bum around', as well as `to seduce, to charm, to fascinate', depending on what derivation one attributes to a particular usage. Such ambiguity, the deliberate befuddling of outsiders, is an essential component of all systems of communication supposed to be intelligible only to a coterie. Approximately half the words listed in the Lexicon relate exclusively to the immediate world of thugs, their status in society, their actions, nouns and verbs giving expression to their actions, the victims of thugs at work, the terrain of their actions. Almost all these words abound with ambiguities, misdirection and lateralisms, euphemisms intelligible only to the initiated. Words and phrases relating to murder (`coded phrases') abound in double, multiple, meanings. The Lexicon is indeed a never-ending fount of discovery and delight, yielding new insights at every reading.

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