The ambition of the historical story being told is not matched by the telling of it. Arunava Sinha
Small lives and smaller imaginations have tended to characterise much of recent Indian fiction in English. The quality of prose often flatters to deceive when it comes to the scope, intent and audacity of storytelling, as one writer after another deconstructs tiny slices of life on constricted canvases. Against this backdrop, it is utterly refreshing to find a novel that dispenses with finely-written depictions of narrow contours of numbed urban existence in favour of an unselfconscious — but no less dramatic for that reason — exploration of gritty battles, romance masquerading as lust, raw emotions and conflicted identity, set, for the most part, in 18th century Bengal.
Biman Nath’s second novel, The Tattooed Fakir, is, like his first, set in history rather than contemporary times. Also like his first, it is racy, moving through action and history at a fast clip, with a cast of characters introduced so easily into the plot that it is almost easy to ignore their historical significance. After all, this is a story populated by inexperienced White rulers, opportunistic traders and businessmen, immoral zamindars, militant fakirs and sanyasis, and displaced Europeans, all thrown into a cauldron of political conflict, revenge, and the quest for freedom. But because their personal stories are fore-grounded — as, indeed, fiction must — the characters’ identities as representatives of their class, sect and gender are only understood as events unfold.
As stories go, this one harks right back to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s historical classics. In a north Bengal village, the peasant Asif’s wife Roshanara, a fakir’s daughter, is abducted by the lusty local zamindar, only to be diverted to the kothi of the local indigo planter MacLean. A dense narrative builds up quickly as MacLean’s French manager Pierre and his sister Anne get involved, even as Asif is spurred on by his father-in-law to seek help from the coalition of militant fakirs and sanyasis which has become a thorn in the side of the British rulers.
The outcome of the conflict and forced coexistence between these divergent forces is encapsulated in the child who grows up to be a young man in the course of the novel. A potent symbol of the mongrelhood forced upon individuals by the simultaneous existence of people of different nationalities, races, religions and pursuits in the same geographic space, this boy — forced to grow up as a fakir who gets himself tattooed in a powerfully visual message of protest — is both the effect and the cause of the events in this novel.
The story is set up well for quick action, involving the unpredictable interplay of individual emotions and the larger, more inexorable progress of history. Nath throws in real-life revolutionaries like Majnu Shah, Bhabani Pathak, and, in a delicious audio cameo, even Devi Choudhurani. Like the best historical novelists, he tells the known stories of history — what really happened through intersections with the unknown stories of individuals — what may well have happened.
It is something of an anti-climax, sadly, that Nath’s ambition in terms of the story he tells is not matched by the telling of it. The plotting is detailed enough, but the characters fall prey to the strong plot. Their responses and actions often seem dictated by the needs of the storytelling rather than their own compulsions or contradictions. Whether it is Maclean or Pierre among the colonialists, or Asif or Musa Shah among the revolutionaries, it isn’t always clear why they behave as they do. MacLean’s unexpected display of tenderness, Pierre’s refusal to be decisive, or Asif’s relationship with a child he can bring himself to neither love nor hate do stand out, but on the whole it is the almost pre-determined milestones in the plot that seem to control the people, rather than the other way round. This takes nothing away from the enjoyment of the novel but, arguably, it misses out on an opportunity for greater richness.
Nor does the writing move up and down the hills and valleys that the story does. The narrative tone is unidirectional and steady, and much of the dialogue — no matter who the speaker is — moves within a narrow register. There is also evidence of borrowing phrases directly from Bengali — which could either be deliberate choice or inadvertent translation. Still, the storyteller’s voice is transparent enough for these not to matter as much as they might have in a more stylised novel.
There is no modernist or post-modern device or narrative here that allows history to be interpreted in a new light. That was probably not the intention either. But in telling the stories of those whom history might have missed out on because they never existed, The Tattooed Fakir brings a lesser-known past into our present. And that alone makes it stand out from the crowd.
The Tattooed Fakir, Biman Nath, Pan Books, p.270, Rs.299.