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In his forebear's footsteps

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The infamous cult of thuggee once proved a link between Delhi and Hyderabad, writes R.V. Smith

“Boodan chillum lao,” said a voice, and the old man hurried in response to the command of Col. Philip Meadows Taylor, in-charge of the anti-thuggee operations in the Nizam's dominions. Boodan had migrated to Hyderabad in middle age when he found living in Delhi's walled city both hazardous and expensive. He had seen his wife light the lantern one evening with their impoverished children crying and huddling around her for fear of imaginary phantoms lurking in the dark. That was nearly 200 years ago, when the Moghul empire had dwindled and the British held sway after Lord Lake's annexation of the Capital 10 years earlier. He had witnessed the shameful sight of his wife being molested by hoodlums in his ancestral village when law and order outside Delhi city was almost non-existent and rural life was plagued by nightly incidents of rape, torture and plunder by armed bands that struck on moonless nights. It was only later that Col David Ochterlony was able to establish some sort of order as the British Resident in the Capital.

Hyderabad beckoned poets and poetasters as much as nobles facing hard days, though Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq, who afterwards became the Ustad of Bahadur Shah Zafar, declined to go there despite inducement, dismissing his patrons' request with the famous comment, “Par kaun jaye Zauq Dilli ki galiyan chor kar” (who, oh Zauq, dare to descend the lanes of Delhi).

Boodan had no such reservations. He wanted his wife and children to escape the vicious circle of rapine and poverty. So when Meadows Taylor visited Delhi in the 1830s for consultations on anti-thuggee operations with Col (“Thuggee”) Sleeman, he was able to enlist him in his service and he bid goodbye to the lanes and bylanes of Delhi with mixed feelings of relief and nostalgic attachment to the city.

Travelling by bullock cart he and his family made it to Hyderabad at last, though in the process his wife was molested again by ruffians and two of his children nearly died of cholera. He himself was wounded in one attack and lost even his meagre belongings. At last he was able to present himself before Taylor Sahib and a long friendship between servant and master began. His wife got over the trauma of the journey and bore him two more sons, which meant seven children in all.

Now, a descendant of Col Meadows Taylor, Dr Alberto Taylor, a dentist by profession, came all the way from California to retrace his ancestral roots and became enamoured with the fantastic life of his forebear who wrote a number of books, including the still popular “Confessions of a Thug”. It is based on the life of Mir Sahib Amir Ali who, as a boy, while travelling from Morena to Indore became an orphan as his parents were strangled by thugs on the way. He escaped because a thug took pity on him and adopted the boy as his son. Amir Ali's father had been a Mir of Delhi who had started living in Morena due to the vicissitudes of fortune that had deprived him of his wealth and property in Akbar Shah's Delhi. Amir Ali grew up to become the most notorious thug of all time and is believed to have strangled 900 travellers. He had become so proficient in the art of throwing the roomal (handkerchief used for strangling) that the victim died before his body hit the ground.

He surrendered to Taylor eventually and became an approver, an act which ensured his escape from the gallows. But before that he had the satisfaction of killing the old thug leader who had strangled his father and mother. Boodan was lighting the chillum (hookah) for Col. Meadous Taylor to settle down on his easy chair and continue the process of recording the confessions of Amir Ali, a lovely specimen of a man descended from the Mirs and Mirzas of Delhi.

Now that Dr. Alberto Taylor came, all these old memories were revived, though Col Taylor had not been completely forgotten in Hyderabad, where there still exits a Taylor Manzil in which the visitor stayed. There are other descendants of the man who wiped out thuggee and dacoity in the Nizam's dominions, staying in England, USA, Mexico and Australia. Like Col Meadows Taylor, Amir Ali and Boodan have also become part of the history of the old Hyderabad State, though Delhi too has a claim on them.

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 8:59:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/in-his-forebears-footsteps/article2984923.ece

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