DAS’s novel weaves an interesting narrative around several lives in the background of the Orissa of mid-nineteenth century. At its centre is Sujata, later called Devi, the illegitimate daughter of the British Collector Stewart, who is born in her grandfather’s village. Her complexion and hair earn her the nickname of Firangi. Because she chooses to rear a pig, the villagers boycott both mother and daughter. When Orissa is stricken by famine, Sujata and her mother leave for Puri, but the mother dies on the way. When Sujata tries to steal food, she is brutally punished and loses her two fingers. She is picked in an unconscious state by Dadu, who thinks of her as a goddess, and calls her Devi. She lives comfortably in his home, learns to read Bengali, and masters the thugee practice of killing people with a rumaal. After Dadu’s death, she plays a trick on his brother by reporting his activities to Stewart, who has been put in charge of the department of thugee at Calcutta. He helps her to go to Puri, but on the way she loses her clothes and jewellery, which forces her to live with a beggar and her pigs.
This is when Devi meets the young prince, the grandson of Queen Tripura Sundari. To save the prince from possible harm from his cousin, the queen tells him to keep away from his pigs, because only low caste people associate with them. So he appoints Devi to take care of them and becomes friendly with her. When his cousin tries to take advantage of her, she kills him by using the rumaal. On the advice of the prince, she reports her deed to the police. Her lawyer is sure of her acquittal, for he is sure that she killed the king’s cousin in self defence, but the new judge, her father Stewart, who knows about the ruthless ways of the thugs, considers her a murderess, and sentences her to life imprisonment.
Das’s novel is an absorbing narrative, which also provides interesting details about the political relations between the British and native rulers, the callous indifference of the British to the pain and suffering of the people hit by famine, the intrigues in the palaces of the kings, and the subtle operations of the river thugs. The novel is well written and quite readable.
(Rupa & Co. 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110 002, [email protected], www.rupapublications.com)