Love, longing, memories & desires
Reviewed by Vikrant Parmar
The Tattooed Fakir

By Biman Nath
Pan Books.
Pages 270. Rs 299

Recreating the past is an art; imagining something that existed somewhere during sometime, putting two-and-two together on the basis of astute research and coming up with a story that is not only credible but also gripping, is more than just art. It is a rare gift and author Biman Nath has made the most of it in his second novel The Tattooed Fakir.

At the onset, through the 'shining' eyes of the protagonist, Asif, which are spotted by a French woman Anne Gaubert amid the trees, the author catapults one to the 'Neel Kuthi' of an Englishman, Ronald Maclean (Makhlin Sahib), and to the summer of 1781 in Jahangirpur, Northern Bengal. Asif is out to rescue his abducted wife Roshanara, whom Maclean has taken as hostage. The rest of the narrative deals with his driving desire to rescue his love.

Asif seeks the help of his father-in-law, Chirag Fakir, to reach the leader of the roving, anti-establishment gang of fakirs, Majnu Shah, who has taken up arms against the feudal set-up manifested through people like zamindar 'Kali Babu' and 'Makhlin Sahib'. Once accepted, Asif is trained in the art of warfare by Majnu Shah's son, Musa Shah.

Subsequently, the story maneouvres itself through the struggle of the fakirs (who later join forces with the Hindu sanyasis) and their guerilla warfare against the “gaining foothold” British East India Company as well as the monstrous zamindars.

Time moves on and Roshanara bears Maclean's child, who is fondly called “little John” by Anne and her brother Pierre, the demure manager at Maclean's indigo plantation. The boy is devoid of his mother's love, who disowns him at birth due to his lineage. He is later abducted by Asif during a gruesome attack on the 'Neel Kuthi' during which he loses the love of his life - Roshanara.

After years of struggle and ego-demolishing experiences, the boy, renamed Roshan in fond memory of his lady love by Asif, gains acceptance in the fakirs' society, but only after he soils his 'white djinn' face with the ink of copious tattoos. Roshan turns out to be an ace archer, who single-handed wins battles for the army of mendicants.

Almost a decade-and-a-half later in 1795, Asif again gets a chance to seek revenge on Maclean and raid the 'Neel Kuthi' as well as target Kali Babu. Asif completes his revenge and two decades later in the spring of 1815 is shown as the ageing caretaker of a dargah in Nekmard. Destiny has similar plans for Anne and Roshan; they reunite for a bit amid the second attack on ‘Neel Kuthi’.

Nath's language is lucid, conversational and far removed from pedagogy. He has borrowed richly from history - Asif learns the art of making rockets from Tipu Sultan's ranks, then there is talk of Permanent Settlement of Lord Cornwallis; battle of Buxar, the French Revolution of 1789 and towards the end, the Wahabi Movement.

The story meanders before reaching its logical conclusion; a few twists make it interesting or else it would have degenerated into yawns of ennui.