Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Confession of Sultana Daku

The Confession of Sultana Daku is a 2009 historical novel by Sujit Saraf. The novel is about the swashbuckling criminal career of Sultana Daku (Daku is the Hindustani for bandit ), undisputedly the most notorious dacoit in modern India's history. He, actually, belonged to bhantu clan of criminals who terrorized the United Provinces (as Uttar Pradesh was then known) in 1920. The novel begins after he is captured by the ruling British and thrown into the Haldwani Gaol. Here, just, a few hours to the gallows, he has a change of heart and he requests for Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Pearce, the officer who, ironically, played a major role in capturing him.

The officer, readily enthusiastic of Indian culture, always keeps a paper and a pencil ready, so it does not take Sultana much to pursue him to record his biography, and that's necessary because he would like his clansmen, especially his son to know how he felt and thought through his hefty upheavals throughout the ups and downs of his meterioc criminal life. Here we come to know of his deepest feelings, his love for his horse Chetak (the choice of name indicates his love for chivalry, that being the historical mount of Maharana Pratap), (while his dog's name - Rai Bahadur, perhaps hints his despise for upper class).

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In the days of the Raj when maharajahs were richer than entire countries and gora sahibs ruled, fact and folklore often became one. One such story is that of Sultana Daku, a bandit who roamed the jungles and ravines of then United Provinces; looting and plundering and often murdering with impunity, he was terrifying figure for the people of those times. Finally, captured by British Police officer Freddie Young sometime in the early 20th Century, he was incarcerated in Najibabad fort and later hanged to death. Due to his sterling achievement, Young was feted by the people as the hero of the Rohilkhand region.

Sujit Saraf, the best selling author of “The Peacock Throne” recently unveiled his second book called “The Confession of Sultana Daku.” The IIT-educated author known for his powerful storytelling and in-depth knowledge of the Indian psyche has sought to re-interpret and re-tell the story of Sultana Daku. The book is a fictionalised account of the dacoit's life written in the form of a letter from Sultana to his son, which is being dictated by Sultana to a Gora sahib on the final night of his life when he is to be hanged. Talking about the inspiration for the book, Sujit says that he “stumbled upon” the incredible story of Sultana, while researching for another book. He adds that “it was Sultana's unshakeable belief in his destiny as a bandit, that drew me to his story” referring to his difference with the likes of Phoolan Devi and Nirbhay Gujjar who became dacoits to avenge the humiliation that they suffered.

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Sultana was a Bhantu. They claim to be descendants of Maharana Pratap, the 16th-century ruler of Mewar. The king fell on bad times after he lost his kingdom to Akbar, the Mughal emperor. Bhantu folklore says that’s when the community dispersed to other parts of the country, and that their leader will one day take them back to Mewar. The British labelled them a “criminal tribe” and kept a close eye on them. Indeed, Gulphi, the most illustrious ancestor of the Bhantus, was the most skillful of all thieves. This was the milieu in which Sultana was born. His grandfather was a thief of some repute — Gulphi reincarnate, some would say. The Confession of Sultana Daku by Sujit Saraf (Penguin, 2009) is a dramatised account of Sultana’s life. Some of its narrative could be contested; nevertheless it gives you a view of the infamous bandit’s world.

The book starts right at the end, the night before Sultana is to be hanged at the Haldwani jail. He reads out a long confession to an Englishman, Lt Col Samuel Pearce. Because he came from a poor household, Sultana was sent to the Najibabad Fort by his mother and grandfather. The Salvation Army, called “Mukti Fauj” by locals, ran a camp there. Regular attempts were made to convert Sultana and other Bhantus to Christianity. In a fantastic twist, Saraf takes Sultana and pals to Delhi in 1911 at the time of the Coronation Durbar. And Sultana decamps with the monarch’s crown from his special train — he escapes through the hole in the royal toilet! The boys dump the crown in the river and return home. It is found in time to save the royals from some serious embarrassment. Apart from this incident, the rest of the book is very believable.

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