Sujit Saraf, a space scientist based in California, has written another tour de force to complement his first novel, The Peacock Throne. The narrative opens in Haldwani jail on July 7, 1924. Sultana Daku, the leader of a gang of dacoits who terrorised the United Provinces in the 1920s, is about to hang. Summoned to the jail, British Colonel Samuel Pearce is asked by Sultana to write down his story and deliver it to his four-year-old son Rajkumar.
The tale is spun throughout the night, Sultana in his cell crouching at the bars speaking softly in broken Hindi to Pearce seated on a stool, translating the words into English and setting them down with a pencil on a sketch book in his lap.
The boy is instructed to go to the bazaar in a town near the fort where he lives and ask a munshi who reads English. “If the munshi insists on being paid, place your knife at his throat,” Sultana commands, setting the tone of the story. “I will have passed into the lap of Sri Maharaj when you meet the sahib with the letter. Twenty years from now it will be your turn to be hanged by the government. Until then, know that your father stole as long as he breathed, robbed when he could not steal, and killed whenever necessary.” Ask anyone, he boasts, “They will tell you that Sultana the bhantu was the greatest daku of all.”
High on charas, Sultana begins his confession with his apprenticeship to his grandfather, Dada, “the greatest thief in Rohinkhand.” Trapped by a thakur while robbing his house, Dada and his family are sent to Najibabad fort where they are confined by Salvation Army missionaries, given Bible instruction, and made to farm small plots of land with other bhantu.
The bhantu are classified as a criminal class and rounded up by the authorities and placed in reservations or prisons, whether or not they have committed any thefts, robberies or murders. For Sultana there are only two paths: to accept this regime or follow Dada. He shows the boy how to store a small knife and pieces of jewelry in his cheek, to burrow under the door of a village house, and slip a bangle off a woman’s wrist without her noticing.
Sultana and his best friend, Bhurey, flee the fort after Bhurey kills the head of the community. Their career as outlaws is launched when Sultana and Bhurey make a hilarious attempt to rob the railway carriage of George Pancham in India for his durbar. They stage raids on banias in small towns and villages and rob thakurs. To keep on the good side of the local authorities they pay one-tenth of their earnings to their local panchayat. The gang grows to more than 100 at its prime, with Sultana, acting as commander, and Bhurey, his deputy.
The gang hides out in an isolated camp surrounded by sheltering trees. Sultana shares out their loot and buries choice items and silver around the camp to tide them over during periods when business is slack. But Sultana is not a real threat to security or to the British raj although he, disingenuously, claims kinship with Gandhi and the freedom movement.
Sultana’s attempt to form a friendship with the British police officer pursuing him fails due to the gulf of misunderstanding between the two men. Sultana does not see that he is, in reality, nothing more than a small time crook preying on poor people although he is the most successful dacoit in the region.
His fortunes begin to slide when he falls in love with a nautranki dancer, Phulkanwar, who helps the gang pull off its biggest job. Sultana and his men overreach themselves, suffer reverses, are dogged by the law and put to flight. Members melt away. Sultana is betrayed and caught. During his short career, he remains true to the bhantu and to his calling. He is superstitious, limited and boastful.
Saraf’s prose reflects his ups and downs, his enthusiasms, his narrowness and blindness. As the hour nears for the hanging, however, Sultana has a moment of self-realisation while Pearce, caught up in the drama of Sultana’s story, panics at the thought that ordinary folk might try to rescue him or attack the jail.
Saraf, born in Bihar in 1969 into a wealthy merchant family, studied at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and received a doctorate from the University of Southern California at Berkeley. He lives in San Francisco where he conducts research on space missions and satellite control, runs a theatre company, makes films and writes.