By Sujit Saraf
Fiction set in the past fascinates me, for the simple reason that it is to me a glimpse into an era gone by. The book opens on a night in a jail in the 1920s. To be precise, 7 July 1924, a notorious dacoit leader, Sultana Daku, is waiting to be led to the gallows the next morning. Sultana is the leader of a gang of Bhantu dacoits, low caste folk, notorious for theiving and robbery in the villages of the United Provinces. He waits for the arrival of Lt Col Samuel Pearce at the Haldwani jail where he is lodged. He then proceeds to tell Pearce the story of his life, which he wants to be written into a letter to his son who is lodged in another jail. High on charas and the reminscences of a man about to meet death, he tells the gora saheb the story of his life. A life that has been crammed with daring feats of heroic burglaries, narrow escapes, of life as a bhantu outlaw, his love for Phulkanwar, a nautch girl, and the betrayal that cost him his freedom and led him to the gallows.
Sultana believes his destiny was written to be a criminal, but he hopes that his son will have a different life. Although he wants his son to learn the tricks of the trade, it is in his hopes and fears for his son that we see the human face of the fearsome dacoit emerge.
The author had earlier written The Peacock Throne. The novel is not just a fictionalised account of the life of a dacoit, but a commentary on the social fabric of the times, a task skilfully done despite the narrative being in the first person.
On an aside, since the mother in law has grown up in the area around Haldwani, I did ask her if she has heard of the legend called Sultana Daku and to my surprise she had. And had apparently studied about him in her school text books. Which made the book all the more interesting to me, because this was a character who had existed, and who was a legend, whom the local people had grown up listening to stories about.
Reviewed by Kiran Manral