A few thoughts about The Confession of Sultana Daku, by Sujit Saraf:
This is a “narrated autobiography” of the famous dacoit, Sultana Daku, who lived in Uttar Pradesh and committed his crimes around the beginning of the 20th century. The proclaimed scribe is a British officer who helped capture him - so Saraf has the advantage of describing the story both from Sultana’s world view and from the British man’s.
The story proceeds pretty much as expected: Sultan is born to a tribe/caste that prides itself on its dharm of being dakus, and learns the tricks of the “trade” from his grandfather. He grows up, becomes a feared dacoit, his gang grows and shrinks, until he is eventually captured (which is where the story begins, on the eve of his execution). In fact at a few points, the story was so sedate that I felt there was nothing new to say in terms of narrative form - it reminded me of the self-congratulatory businessmans-ghost-written-autobiographies that are prevalent these days.
However, the setting and the detailed research that Saraf puts into the time partly redeems the book. The traditions of the people, their intricate social customs, the interaction with the different types of British people, all are lovingly captured. How true to life is this worldbuilding? I can’t vouch for all of it, but it certainly feels real. The tone reminds one of Kipling’s English, and there is the very typical Raj-era tendency of putting faux “folk wisdom” into the mouths of characters at every chance. “Know, my son, that we do not rob the same man twice, even if he has identified you to the police.” Saraf is probably reminding us that this isn’t Sultana’s language exactly, but his language as filtered through the British translation.
A couple of places seem over-researched - would an illiterate dacoit identify a dog as a “Rampur Hound”, when even the British can’t? But it’s still all right. As Indians in search of an identity, we need more books like this, which turn historical events into folklore that we can identify with. Indeed, seen from that perspective, it seems churlish of me to have any criticism whatsoever of the book.
But I must make one final point. The title is very reminiscent of the classic The Confessions of Nat Turner, which, too, was a narrated autobiography of a black revolutionary/criminal in Civil-War-era Southern United States. Whereas Nat Turner turned his whole lived experience into a semi-mystical experience, Sultana only succeeds in becoming a frame for the British Raj atmosphere. There is not much character arc or growth for Sultana through the book, which would have elevated it to a classic status. Nor are any other characters given much to do. Instead of a Hero’s Journey, we have a hero standing still while the world revolves around him, showing us its facets.
Still - worth a quick read for the atmosphere, and Saraf is someone to watch out for as he grows. Thank you for not doing the overused “Magical Realism” thing here and keeping it grounded and realistic.