A tale from the fringes of history

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Aug 12 2012, 09:04am hrs
Astrophysicist and writer Biman Nath turns to a forgotten part of Indian history, the guerrilla warfare launched by fakirs and sanyasis of the 18th century against the British (then East India Company) in Bengal, and spins a yarn of love, loss, identity and revenge around it.

His second novel, The Tattooed Fakir, is the story of a fierce boy soldier, Roshan, who is struggling with his identity, being born to a Scottish father and Muslim mother, and the wars he wages against society with a band of fakirs. That the British feared the fakirs or enemies of the state is evident from many circulars, reports of the timeand Nath mentions two, including one written by Warren Hastings, governor-general, presidency of Fort William, Calcutta, in 1773: Keep a particular eye over the motion of the people known by the name of Sannyasis (and Fakirs) whose incursions of late have been frequent.

But whats fascinating about Naths novel is that he uses the backdrop of history, sets the story in it and then lets the various characters take a course of their own. In the process, we get a glimpse of the time: the Bengal countryside post the devastating famine of 1770, the life of poor farmers, the zamindars slowly giving in to the East India Company sahibs; indigo planters; the French colonial rulers already in the fringes, and the fakirs, dressed in black, roaming the forests and raging a guerrilla war.

We also get involved in the lives of Roshanara and Asif, whose world is turned upside down when first the zamindar and then the sahib take an interest in her; Roshan, the white djinn, who blackens his face with a tattoo to get rid of the taunts; the brother-sister French duo Pierre and Anne who try to bring some semblance of stability in the life of Roshan and the Scotsman MacLean sahib.

On one level, its about the universal story between the powerful and the powerless; on another, its a story of human relationships, their triumphs and travails. When Anne gets a pianoforte delivered by boat in this remote Bengal village, it becomes an event. Later, Roshanara, who cuts herself off from everyone after the birth of her son of mixed origins, tells Anne: I heard some strange sounds from your house the other day, to which Anne replies: It must be the piano. Roshanara doesnt understand and Anne couldnt explain it to her: she didnt know of any Indian instrument she could compare it to. Roshanara tells her she used to play the dotara, the two-stringed instrument fakirs play.

The story may be set in the late 18th century, but it has a timeless quality to it. Nath weaves history into the narrative seamlessly, adding to its charm.