3/5 Stars, Ahmadullah Jai Bhowanee!
“Thugs are unlike any others. No remorse seems to possess their souls. In the weariness of perpetual imprisonment one would think their imaginations and recollections of the past would be insupportable to them; but no, – they eat, drink, and sleep like others, are solicitous about their dress, ever ready to talk over the past, and would if released tomorrow, again follow their dreadful profession with a fresh zest after their temporary preclusion from it” ~ Philip Meadows Taylor, Confessions of a Thug
Was this definition, the inspiration to dub a no remorse attitude as ‘Thug Life’? I wonder. I can almost imagine a Victorian lady clutching her handkerchief in dread and excitement as she read those lines, feverishly thinking ahh! what terribly fascinating people, so full of savagery, truly devils in the flesh. And perhaps that was what Mr. Taylor intended, if history is any indication, he succeeded marvelously.
This book was first published in 1839, under the genre Non-fiction, & Crime I suppose. Is it non-fiction, many say yes many say no. Thugee as explained and displayed in the book is an issue of contention, propaganda or fact, we have many conflicting opinions. But for the sake of a review lets give Mr. Taylor our indulgence for the moment.
Goodreads Blurb :- Philip Meadows Taylor’s Confessions of a Thug (1839) is the most influential novel about India prior to Kipling’s Kim and was one of the bestselling sensation novels of the nineteenth century. In the course of a confession to a white ‘sahib’ the imprisoned Ameer Ali recounts his life as a member of the Thuggee, a secret religious cult practicing ritual mass murder and robbery. Taylor uncovered evidence of the crimes committed by bands of Thugs as a Superintendent of Police in India during the 1820s. Introducing a new standard of ethnographic realism to western fiction about India, Confessions of a Thug is a strikingly vivid, chilling and immensely readable thriller. This unique critical edition makes available a fascinating and significant work of Empire writing.
This piece of literature is in itself a part of history, the word ‘Thug’ was made famous and adopted to general use in the west because of this novel and many of the biased stereotypes about the east were also established by this very work no doubt. The writing, is as one would expect irritatingly old school and dragging. Filled with over attention, cheap thrills and brakes one would generally see in an soap opera, but were no doubt all the rage in the early 19th century. The one thing that does lingers though, is the sheer repetitive scale of the tale, its just too long, 600 pages or so, in that annoying gentlemanly script. This, interestingly adds to the genuineness of the story, Mr.Taylor could have come up with a more sensational and less dragging tale for entertainment, the fact that he didn’t might mean some of it is true.
Ameer ali and his thugs, were a force to be reckon with. These vile men were a scourge for the travelers, a four way mutation between a Dacoit(armed robber), a Con man, a Serial killer, and Religious zealot( I am curious as to see what the Indian cinema is going to do with this with their “Thugs of Hindustan“). The story is narrated as the name suggests through a confession by Ameer ali the thug, to the writer himself. A first hand account! of an eastern savage! the readers in London would have gone crazy. In Ameer Ali’s too inadequate defense, the thug life did choose him, literally. The story recounts his initiation in thugee (A profession ordained by the Great Kali herself) and his many expeditions to the various parts of the country in his ‘noble’ pursuit, daring many dangers and enticing his ‘bunij’ prey into oblivion. The story drags but is nonetheless interesting. Specially, when he recounts his ‘Pindaree’ days (That I did not expect). ‘Pindaree’, mounted hordes of Muslim robbers, ex soldiers, harassing kingdoms, burning and looting villages on behalf of rival lords, pillaging, raping countless persons. And then the thugee as well, duping unsuspecting travelers and then garroting(With their silk handkerchiefs no less, it’s an art! Ameer Ali would have us know) them in their sleep or distraction. The bodies vanish, no proof no crime, right, the earth swallows their sin, literally. Truly, Mr . Taylor had put forth the whole horror galore 1829 India had to offer, to turn the delicate stomachs of the powdered west. Bravo, sir, Bravo Indeed.
The truly appealing thing to me was the social structure of the thugs. Thugee cults were filled with Muslims, even though they believed themselves to be the servants of goddess Kali. Both Hindus and Muslims, working under a Jamadar (A rank given to the leader of the group) for stalking, coning and killing their prey. Shoulder to shoulder, with their rituals and superstition, their networks, their code of honor, the tension nowhere to be seen. Although, these men are shown to be vile beyond belief, psychopaths made through superstition but this union among them surprised me to no end. The realization that the story happens in 1820s, (With the Mutiny of 1857 yet to come and along with it the famous ‘divide et impera’ to poison the subcontinent forever) came later.
The book undoubtedly stoke the Anglo pride, the inspectors shown as the champion of justice, purging the country of Thugs and Pindaris, the current rulers corrupt and complicit and hence giving legitimate reason for their occupation and rule of the unruly and backward peasants. We do have to take all this with a pinch of salt. But the historical accounts and the glimpses of the 1830’s India still felt worth it. I wanted to see more of it, much more then what it had, but a man lost in the desert must take such water as he is offered, no matter who it comes from (a quote from ‘
This was exhausting, you have to stifle yawns and disdainful snorts in many places but I never went in for the excitement, I read this for the history and yes for the legend of the thugs. And to be completely honest, although tired I was not disappointed. To a curious and patient mind, this is a rewarding read. Thank you for leaving this biased inaccurate sensational but timeless piece of work Mr. Taylor.