Maoist insurgency? This happened in Bengal in the 1770s!
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 mystery.
"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 650 AD.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)