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War of the Righteous

A historical novel that deals with the panoramic at the expense of the personal

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Published: October 20, 2012 2:40 am

Book: The Tattooed Fakir

Author: Biman Nath

Publisher: Pan MacMillan

Price: Rs. 299

Pages: 268

The Fakir-Sannyasi Rebellion which took place in Bengal in the late 18th century has divided historians. Was it,as some historians claim,the first spurt of patriotism against a foreign ruler? Or was it organised extortion by ascetics used to collecting a religious tax from local zamindars,and which the proclamation of the Diwani in Bengal and Bihar in 1765 had effectively made unavailable? In Biman Nath’s second novel The Tattooed Fakir,set against the backdrop of the Rebellion,in the aftermath of the Great Famine of Bengal in 1770,there is little ambiguity about their role. The fakirs are fighting the war of the righteous,countering manipulative landlords and the East India Company,their domain spreading across North Bengal up to the state’s border with Nepal.

Against this setting,the novel opens with the abduction of Roshanara,the daughter of a fakir,who is kidnapped by the local zamindar of Jahangirpur. Roshanara is married to a poor farmer,Asif,who is paying off his parents’ debts to the Burra Sahib,Ronald MacLean,owner of the indigo plantation in the village. Roshanara lands up at Neel Kuthi and is taken by MacLean as his mistress. A distraught Asif joins the famed Majnu Shah’s band of fakirs,becoming battle-hardy,even as he plots a rescue mission for his wife. By the time he leaves to rescue Roshanara,almost a decade passes by in which Roshanara has given birth to a son John. Asif never rescues Roshanara,instead he escapes into the forest with John,whom he renames Roshan.

The boy,with his fair skin,and the curious sensitivity that children have,is a misfit among the fakirs,some of whom barb him as the “white djinn”. Hated by his mother,unacknowledged by his father (MacLean),and taunted by the fakirs,Roshan gives his tortured existence the graffiti it seems to be calling out for: he tattooes his face,excels as a marksman and snuffs the sneer out of those who trifle with him,including Asif.

In Roshan,Nath (his first novel Nothing is Blue was in the running for the Vodafone-Crossword Book Award,2009),had the promise of a notable protagonist. Roshan is a precocious 11-year-old with a fractured hold over languages (apart from his mother tongue,he understands French,having been nurtured by the sister of the French manager at the Kuthi),an affinity for music,marksmanship and masochism. Yet Nath fails to deliver on it. He glosses over Roshan,just as he skims over most of the events in the story,introducing skeins of events and personages,both historical and fictitious,without allowing any of them to realise their potential. At one point,in an irrational chain of events,Asif travels to Mysore to learn rocket-making from Tipu Sultan’s army.

Buried under these illogical events are some characters,who given a chance,might have blossomed. The back story of the French manager Pierre Gaubert and his sister Anne is engaging and MacLean,the exacting sahib,is rendered almost human in places as he reacts to his complexes and counters the biases against his Scottish background. Perhaps,if Nath had concentrated on the central themes of alienation and displacement at a personal level rather than at a panoramic level,the novel might have worked. As it is,the revolt fails to spark.

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