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‘Twilight in a Knotted World’: A world of tangled truths

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh | Updated on October 09, 2020 Published on October 09, 2020

Modus operandi: The Phansigars killed their victims by strangulation   -  IMAGE: WIKEPEDIA

A band of dacoits plunders and kills; a British officer looks to nab them. Siddhartha Sarma offers not just a tale of crime and punishment, but also glimpses of life in 19th-century India

The first half of the 19th century was a time of tremendous change in India. Dynasties had dissipated, the East India Company was at its pinnacle, and increasingly ceding control of the new colony to the Crown. Having gobbled up region after region, the British were realising the extent of work it took to administer the vast land they had annexed, largely through foul means. The stories of the kings and nawabs of the time have been told many times before, by historians and storytellers. But what about the men, women and children who toiled in the villages, or the traders and the network they banked on to run their businesses? What was life like for them? Who did they meet? What did they think? To whom did they pray?

Siddhartha Sarma’s novel Twilight in a Knotted World focusses on the lives of ordinary folks in the early 1800s. Set roughly in the initial decades of the 19th century, it tracks the Phansigars, a feared band of dacoits who roamed the countryside, the highways and the riverways, and attacked travellers. They spoke a distinct dialect, and their favoured method of murder was strangulation. Sarma draws upon the historical accounts of the Phansigars and weaves a fictitious tale that is part-police procedural, part-history, and part-documentary, throwing light on the lives of the Indians and the English of the time. Indeed, the book makes for fascinating reading.

Twilight in a Knotted World/ Siddhartha Sarma /Simon & Schuster / Fiction / ₹599

 

Sarma’s protagonist is the real-life British officer Captain William Henry Sleeman, administrator of Jabalpur district in the Central Provinces. An erudite man with wide-ranging interests, including linguistics and archaeology, he was invested in understanding the culture, history and geography of the country he spent most of his life in. When we first meet Sleeman, he is in the middle of an excavation, and has found the bones of a yet-to-be identified creature. Those who have studied similar bones in Europe think it’s a giant reptile. Sleeman, of course, has found the remains of the Indian dinosaur. Like the other intricate details in the book, this, too, helps in creating a holistic picture of the people and the place.

Sleeman, who prefers to stay far from the political wrangling at the Government House in Calcutta, is summoned by the governor-general. The Scindia of Gwalior is upset that a nobleman who was bringing a prized horse to him has vanished without a trace on the highway; he’s suspected to have fallen victim to the Phansigars. The issue threatens to boil over, and Sleeman is tasked with bringing the dacoits to book. As Sleeman digs deeper into stories and hearsay, and chases leads, there emerges a vast network of men (and women), intricately organised, operating across huge swathes of land, hunting and killing their fellowmen. Why and how do they do it? Are poverty and hunger driving people to crime? Or are larger factors at play? Are a few powerful men controlling the destinies of many?

At one point, after uncovering a mass grave of murdered travellers, Sleeman, his strength sapped by the heat, thinks: “Therefore the conundrum of the many nations that form India: a land connected by vast, sclerotic routes of commerce and exchange, faith and tradition, weddings and funerals, yatras and ziyarats but where people live near, and not with one another.

“Sleeman knew this traveller and the intricate strands of jati, varna and biradari — oppressive, unequal, dense and multi-layered — which surrounded him. And yet, the earth had just given back the corpses of these travellers, who had vanished in the middle of going about their everyday trade, whose rules of exclusion had not saved them from harm at the hands of their fellowmen.”

However, Sarma’s book is not just about the Phansigars or their deeds. One of the saddest and perhaps most tender accounts is the capture of a little wolf boy from the forests of Seoni. Sleeman’s deputy, who is investigating a series of cattle killings, comes across a pack of wild dogs and wolves, and loping with the wolf pack — a boy, naked, feral. He is captured and brought to civilisation, where Sleeman’s wife Amelie tries to care for him. Months later, his initial fear gone, the boy begins to roam the grounds, but still tied to a rope.

A number of historical characters make an appearance in the novel. Brian Hodgson, with his studies of the natural world and deep knowledge of Buddhism; James Prinsep with his interest in languages, coins and more, his capacious mind making connections that will change the way Indian history is viewed forever. Amelie, as much a scholar as her husband, is studying and documenting the language of the Phansigars, as well as learning the folk music traditions of the region. Ideas of governance, law and justice run through the book, as does the question of the validity of the colonial enterprise. Sarma, a journalist and historian, examines these concepts through different prisms — an astonishing one is the impassioned statement from an old woman, determined to commit sati. Her words show what it was to be a woman caught in a patriarchal and unfair system where mere laws can bring about little change.

Rife with ideas, packed with events, and a story that twists and turns to reveal a world that is as astonishing as it is cruel, Sarma’s novel is a must read for both history buffs and those fascinated by how ideas evolve and change with time. The deeper one gets into this twilit world, the more its edges blur, the tighter the knots of history appear.

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor

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Published on October 09, 2020
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