The Tattooed Fakir by Biman Nath – Book Review
Set in late 18th CE, this story The Tattooed Fakir touches that part of history that is documented. But those documents probably lie in some obscure libraries or archives. It talks about the fakirs and sanyasis who came together to fight both the zamindars and the company forces to protect the unprotected, a kind of Robin Hoods. The story is told through a young Muslim peasant’s personal saga. Whose wife is abducted and in his aspiration to rescue her, he becomes a Fakir.
At one level it is a story of a young peasant couple in Bengal. Whose livelihood is controlled by the Zamindars? But they still lead a happy life with each other. Life is changed forever when the wife is abducted by the zamindars. But by strokes of fate lands in British Indigo Merchant’s estate. Who first violates her but eventually falls in love with her. She bears him a son but refuses to acknowledge him by completely isolating herself from both father and son. Fate would take the boy to her husband and both of who will struggle through the strange relationship that they share.
Manager of an estate, a French man, and his sister have their own story of rebel siblings hailing from a rich family in France who are stuck at the estate. Due to personal and political series of events that take place with and around them. In this string, the author has tried to explore the human relationships that grow in all kinds of circumstances. Especially when people are bound in the same space. He depicts the helplessness of common man in India even then, his dependence on the powerful all the time. He captures the loneliness that foreigners faced in this non-native land in pursuit of money. And elusive dreams of a rich life after they return home.
At another level, it tells you about the movement that was being led by fakirs and sanyasis. It tells you about how the ordinary citizens were inducted into the system, by never letting them forget their personal pain. And always keeping them running in a hope that someday the organization will come out and help them. Each of them has a sad story of how and why they landed up in jungles. Learning skills to fight the enemy, making strategies to attack the rich zamindars who torture the poor peasants. There is no formal organization, no major means of communication. but they still manage to plan and execute major attacks.
They collaborate for skills and resources across the length and breadth of the country. Thick jungles are their homes and black their color. It’s interesting that at the beginning of the story that spans around 25-30 odd years, Muslim fakirs and Hindu sanyasis are fighting side by side. But by the end of the story, the lines between them are distinct. I am not sure if there is an element of truth in it. Or if it is just the author’s imagination. But sometime somewhere that is how the sharp lines would have had their beginning.
The backdrop of the story is the time when Mughals were on their way down. And so were other European powers like French and British hold on the country was building up. It is the time when they play their games of divide and rule. They play the peasants against the Zamindars and vice versa, Zamindars against the rulers and vice-versa. While they also hold of the major businesses like Indigo, Opium and Ship building beside feeding their textile mills.
Language is simple, narration linear, and mood very neutral even when most characters are leading a rather melancholic life. Music has been used to convey emotions at places, through the arrival of a piano, which is pleasing. Rasa of storytelling is missing. The Tattooed Fakir is like a documentary, stating the facts and figures in a dry manner. The organization of Fakirs could have been crisper like by etching out the character of the head Fakir Majnu Shah.
The Tattooed Fakir is an educating read, a portrait of the late 18th CE society in Bengal, and almost an introduction to warrior Fakirs.