Twilight In A Knotted World: A Fascinating Read For History Buffs

Siddhartha Sarma’s novel Twilight in a knotted world majorly focuses on a group of Phansigars. (They are more famous as thugs. Since they used to kill with a noose the name Phansigars also came into usage.) They are a feared gang of dacoits who roamed the countryside, the highways and the river ways, and attacked the travelers. They spoke a certain kind of dialect so they could mingle with the strangers and attack them at a right time. Sarma draws upon historical accounts of these Phansigars and weaves a tale which is part history and part police procedural. Through this story he throws light on the lives of both Indians and Englishmen of that time. It is a book that makes for a fascinating read.

There is another book called confessions of a thug by Phillip Meadows Taylor. The plot of the book revolves around a fictional anti – hero protagonist, Ameer Ali, a Muslim thug. The story lays bare the practices of the thugs, or ”deceivers” as they were called who murdered travelers for money and valuables. The book is not to be confused with the Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan starrer Thugs of Hindustan.

The protagonist of the book is the real life British officer William Henry Sleeman. He is an administrator of Jabalpur district in the central province. He is a man of wide ranging interests like linguistics and archeology and also someone who is keen on understanding the culture, history and geography of the country that he stayed in.

One day Sleeman is urgently summoned by the governor general. The reason being that Scindia of Gwalior is upset that a nobleman who was bringing him a prized horse 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 the responsibility of catching the dacoits falls on Sleeman. As Sleeman digs deeper into his investigation he realizes that there is a vast network of men (and women), intricately organized and operating across huge acres of land hunting and killing their fellowmen.

Through this investigation several questions are raised by the writer. For example are poverty and hunger leading to this sort of crime? Are a few powerful men controlling the destinies of many?

The best part of the book is how the author gives a psychological insight into what makes them do the things they do. We also get an insight into the intricate strands or types of Jati, Varna and Biradari which holds good even today. I quite agree with what the writer wrote.

However the book is not just about the Phansigars and their deeds. One of the most tender and touching accounts in the book is that 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 with them there is a boy who is naked and feral. He is captured and brought to the civilized world, where Sleeman’s wife tries to care for him. Months later he loses his fear and begins to roam the grounds, but still tied to a rope.

Ideas of governance, law and justice is another important thing which runs through the book, as does the question of the validity of the colonial enterprise. There is a chapter in the book regarding sati. You have an old woman who is determined to commit sati. Her words to Sleeman show what it is to be a woman caught in a patriarchal and unfair system where mere laws cannot bring much change.

Siddartha Sarma’s etching of characters deserves a special mention. They have been sketched well starting from the primary character of captain Sleeman. What makes his character very likeable is following the rule of the law and at the same time choosing the right thing while on a crossroad. Another character which deserves a mention is that of Amelie who supported her husband in all his endeavors and acted as a moral compass during testing times. What adds even more strength to her character is that she brings in the much required human touch. On the whole Twilight in a knotted world is a fascinating read which shows how ideas evolve and change with time.

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