Sunday, July 25, 2010

Confessions of a Thug - Philip Meadows Taylor

Thugs, or the Thugge culture was prominent in India for ages. 17th to 19th centuries were the prime time of their activities. India a vast land with very minimal public transportation, made their existence and survival easier. People travelling from one town to the other often taking the village roads, where subjected to their attack and loot, after being killed in a gruesome manner. Vast expanse of land and no means of communication and an absence of a single entity for law and order made it easy for them to escape the rare occasion of control. India having divided into numerous small kingdoms and the local feudal lords, had no way of consolidated efforts to nab them and bring them to justice. The fact that, they often operated underground, and the victims fate reached the concerned relatives( if at all) took too long, did not help in identifying and capturing them. It is also said that most of the small kingdoms fostered and nourished their own thuggees for both military and financial means.

When published in the year 1839, this book supposed to have taken the English reading population by storm. It was considered a huge success, even become a favourite book of the Queen of England. Philip Taylor had come to India as a clerk to a Merchant in Bombay, later joined the services of Nizam of Hyderabad. During the famous hunt for the Thugs, where he was the clerk in the commission of their capture and punishment, Taylor used the knowledge to write them to "to expose, as fully I was able, the practice of the Thugs and make the public more conversant with the subject" and not to "gratify a morbid taste in any one for tales of horror and of crime".

It was in the first half of the 19th century , a formal effort to bring an end to this was organised under the the East india company. The statistics shows that they were largely successful. From the year 1831 to 1837 , a Total number of 3266 thugs were caught and sentenced to various punishments ( transported to Penang, killed, imprisoned etc). While this has reduced the intensity of the attacks, the system continued to live clandestinely into the 20th century. Improvement in the public transport and the increased control over the territory by the British Empire, would have reduced their freedom of operation.

Taylor, writes this books are a recollection of Ameer Ali ( modelled after one notorious Thug, who was captured by the British and later turned himself as an approver and informer), as he goes through his life story to his capturer. Ameer, who boasts of committing 719 murders in his lifetime ( "Ah! sir, if I had not been in prison twelve years, the number would have been a thousand"). Ameer's life begins with the Thuggees after he was rescued in one of the attacks and was brought up in the family of Ismail, the leader of the gang based out of Sheopoor, some where in the central part of India. Brought up away from the Thugee culture until he was ready to take oath, Ameer Ali was trained traditionally on the use of weapons and other means of self protection. His early recall of adventure was killing a tiger attacked his village, and that prompted his father to enroll (!) him into the Thuggee gang. His first expedition after being included into the grand gang, included one murder by himself. The murder performed by thugs has the ritualistic order. It is bloodless, using a 'roomal' (hand kerchief), chocking the prey with their grip, thus preventing any noise being heard. They practice the usage of kerchief on animals as part of their induction, before set to use on their victims. They seldom use spears and swords, unless being attacked, even though they are well trained in their use.

The method of thugs are fairly common and simple. They befriend one of the travelling business man , often joining their expedition( for want of a large team to prevent attack) and on appropriate time and location, kill them and take their booty. The dead bodies are buried deep underground with suitable camouflage and safety and continue their journey until they find their next victim. A good thug, then has to be good at identifying, using his charm and words to lure them into the expedition and be cunning enough to find the time and place to finish them off. Women and children are omitted form the murder , albeit occasionally, this rule is broken. The leader is obeyed and there is no scope for rebel in a group. Most of the time, they survive without any loose of their own men, unless the opponents are equally or adequately equipped.

Thuggees belongs to cross religious and cross linguistic origin. In a group, such as the one headed by Ameer ali, has people of Hindu and Muslim faith. Irrespective, the group follow and worship Goddes Bhavani (a form of Durga, Kali - pronounced as 'bhowanee' in the book ) and takes her blessings before each expedition. They also seek omen and set forth only if the omens are right. The rituals and the proceedings are followed with precision. The way of murder, the selection of place, the way the bodies are buried after they are undressed and ornaments are removed et al. The whole affair is executed with precision and with utmost conviction, as there is no room for any second thoughts or remorse.

Ameer Ali, the protagonist himself was a victim of Thugee attack, though he is not aware of it. His father and mother was brutally murdered by the gang where Ismail, his foster father, was involved. Ismail, married for long and still childless, took pity on the young boy and take his to his family, against the wishes of the others in the gang. It was only during his parting comments to his son, prior to his execution, he reveals that to his son.

545 pages of repeated conning , plotting and executing one murder after another isn't a happy read. Except towards the end, where Ameer Ali looses his own family and his fathers execution, we don't see any humane values or discussion through out his narrative.

Taylor shows absolute clarity of India's vast geography ( the direction, naming places and  kingdoms ) and and the various cultural and class issues. The use of Hindi, Urdu and Arabic phrases, which are common among the Muslims was very impressive (The end of the book provides the glossary and meaning of these words). On the socio - political angle, the book also reveals the increasing influence of the British East India Company in India, as region after regions are turned under their direct control, or through the kingdom, they are able to associate with. We can see the changes through the narrative of Ameer Ali, as he says more and more places they are subjected to inspection by the 'Angrez' (Britishers).

The style and prose are similar to the other nineteen century novels, and notwithstanding the nature of the book and the subject dealt with, it is relatively an easy read. In all, it is an interesting insight to the once prevailed thuggee culture, but not a pleasant reading experience.


Confessions of a Thug ( 1839 )

Philip Meadows Taylor

Rupa & Co ( reprint )

547 Pages

Rs 295

Read these for more : Ambiguity and historicism: interpreting Confessions of a Thug, SF Reviews

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