Charles Allen

The banditry plays on

Forty years ago V. S. Naipaul enraged Indians by describing India as ‘an area of darkness’. He also upset a great many Western liberals who were then discovering in India a land of all-pervading spirituality. Later, he returned to India to write more kindly about ‘a wounded civilisation’ undergoing a liberation of spirit through ‘rage and revolt’.

Which leads me to Kevin Rushby’s new travel book, subtitled ‘Through India in Search of Bandits, the Thug Cult and the British Raj’, which takes India’s liberation through rage and revolt as its central theme. It deals chiefly with the phenomenon and subsequent legacy of India’s notorious cult of the Thug or ‘deceiver’, first brought to public attention by the redoubtable Major William Sleeman in the early 1830s and subsequently eradicated by him and his band of assistants and sepoys by the ‘turning’ of captured gang-members into informers. The killing methods of the thugs and their devotion to the black goddess of death, Kali, thrilled and revolted the Victorians, and secured a lasting hold in the popular imagination that lingers on in such films as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Merchant Ivory production The Deceivers.

It is a great subject and Rushby tackles it with gusto, first zig-zagging through south India in search of India’s most elusive and notorious bandit (who remains unsurprisingly elusive), then zipping over to Bombay to meet one of its many godfathers (currently representing himself as a born-again social worker) before heading for the badlands that the British knew as Bundelkund, divided between Madya Pradesh and Bihar, the heartland of the thug cult. He then moves north to Benares for some heavy and elegiac immersion both in and around the Ganges before a short and bloody climax in Calcutta.

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