Thiruvananthapuram: Insurgents operate with impunity
across the countryside while foreign companies seek to cash in on
India's natural resources. A tale of present-day India? No, it is
Bengal in the late 18th century, though author Biman Nath says the
parallels with today's Maoist extremism never came to his mind
while writing the book.
"My book is about the Fakir rebellion (which coincided with the
Sanyasi stir) in Bengal in the late 18th century. I also wanted to
write about the European indigo planters and these two strands
came together in the 'Tattooed Fakir'," Biman Nath, an
astro-physicst by profession, told IANS in an interview at the 5th
Kovalam literary festival here last week.
How did he get the idea for the book?
"I don't know when the idea exactly came to my mind.. but I got
interested in the era. (Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's) 'Ananda
Math' deals with the Sanyasi rebellion but there is nothing much
on the Fakirs, whose rebellion lasted nearly two decades," said
Nath, who holds a doctorate in astrophysics and works at the Raman
Research Institute in Bangalore.
"It was an interesting time. The British rule was not fully
established despite their victory at Buxar (where they defeated
the combined forces of the Mughal emperor, the Nawab of Awadh and
the Nawab of Bengal) and there was a lot of turmoil in Bengal,
specially after the 1770 famine and groups like the Fakirs and
Sanyasis were active," he said.
Another key sub-plot is the commercial rivalry and espionage
between the British and the French in Bengal.
"The British had set up a few indigo plantations in the
countryside. The French ones, which had been supplanted in the
area, engaged in a sort of commercial espionage to keep tabs on
what their rivals were up to," said Nath.
"I did a lot of research on the era, consulted the archives...
unfortunately, the Fakirs left almost no written records and most
of what we know about them is from the perspective of the British
officers, who termed them 'enemies of the state'," he added.
"The parallels with the present-day situation... a group of
'enemies of the state', the 'Red Corridor' never came to my mind
while writing the book. It was only when people pointed it out did
I realise that. But my intention is not to send a message but to
tell the Fakirs' story," said Nath.
Nath says the Fakirs still remain shadowy, and their motivations a
"The Fakirs, led by Majnu Shah, used to called themselves 'Be-Shariati'
and thus not subject to Islamic laws and rules. They were members
of the Madari (Sufi) Silsila and used to meet up once a year in
Kanpur (at that time in the domains of the Nawab of Awadh). They
left no records except one letter by Majnu Shah to a local Muslim
landowner seeking cooperation in their fight."
"We have no idea of their motivations. The British called them
bandits, preying on villagers. But there is at least one case in
1788 in Jahangirpur when the local villagers came to the aid of a
band of Fakirs fighting the British. The villagers even collected
their abandoned belongings and returned them later. The incident
even left the local British officer wondering," he said.
On "Ananda Math" which deals with the same period, Nath says
Chattopadhyay, who was a deputy collector under the British, dealt
with the issue circumspectly, portraying the Sanyasis' fight
against Muslims, not the British.
"On the other hand, (Deenbandhu Mitra's) 'Nil Darpan' focusses on
the cruelty of British plantation owners in the 1860s. The life
and process (of indigo) was cruel... but in my book, I have not
sought to paint the Europeans black, to take any sides. I just
wanted to tell a story."
Nath says this will be his last work of fiction for a while.
"My next book is a technical work on astronomy. I have no time to
research them.. I have two PhD students under me, academic
commitments...," said the author, whose first novel "Nothing is
Blue" was set in Nalanda at the time of Hiuen Tsang's visit around
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)