Set in the tumultuous years of the late 1820s and 1830s, Siddhartha Sarma’s latest novel Twilight in a Knotted World takes us back to that moment in South Asian history when British interests were beginning to push for imperial control over the subcontinent. As the process of expansion and imperial governmentality are methodically initiated, mysterious confederacies of criminals who looted and strangled their victims along Indian travel routes begin to draw the attention of higher Company officials.

In an article published in the Anglo-Indian press in 1816, Captain Richard Sherwood argues that “Thuggee” was an ancient religious practice in which Hindus and Muslims alike expressed their devotion to Goddess Bhawanee through the ritual strangulation of travellers. In 1829, two other Company officers, TC Smith and William Sleeman, were given official permission by the India Office to run a campaign to systematically suppress and prosecute the Thugs.

Meet Captain Sleeman

Twilight in a Knotted World is the story of this historic operation with Captain WH Sleeman as its conscientious but reluctant hero. Governor-General Bentinck tells Captain Sleeman, “…we need a better class of administrators…In fact, we need a better administration…need to understand the people as much as crimes and criminal groups…I am, I fear, passing on a political Gordian’s Knot to you, and unlike in the myth it is not always advisable to slice through a knot and move on. Sometimes knots need to be unravelled.”

As Sleeman initiates his campaign in the desolate hinterlands of central India, discovering heaps of corpses, an elaborate hierarchy of rank and function among the mysterious stranglers or Phansigars, their ritualistic practices and networks, and a coded language that wove a mesh of invincibility around their operations, he begins to understand the complexity of India, the enduring conventions of caste and tribes spread across vast and yet unmapped territories, the politics of regional battles and rebellious resistances, the shadow worlds between myth and reality.

Written like a detective story with twists and turns and sudden disclosures, the novel unravels this history through the meditations and actions, achievements and failures of its chief protagonist WH Sleeman as he embarks on a riveting journey in his quest to capture the “man who was many men”, the legend and the key to the cult of Phansigars.

Sleeman, in his own book Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official, includes a letter to his sister as author dedication. In the letter, he writes: “Of one thing I must beg you to be assured, that I have nowhere indulged in fiction, either in the narrative, the recollections, or the conversations. What I relate on the testimony of others I believe to be true; and what I relate upon my own you may rely upon as being so. Had I chosen to write a work of fiction, I might possibly have made it a good deal more interesting…”

Filling in the gaps

Sarma’s novel creatively fulfils the task that Sleeman, in his account, confesses he is unable or disinclined to perform. In the early pages of Twilight, as Sleeman follows his passion for paleontology, he reflects upon his place in history: “But what of the detritus of life? If somebody were to study his bones many years after he had been dead and buried, what would they know of him…what would [he] know of how he lived, of his thoughts, or his rise, his fall or how he had striven? Nothing at all. Only the barest signature of his time on earth would remain…” The novel is an elaboration of this reflection, an imaginative and intimate account of those moments that remain buried or undocumented in the annals of large, public histories.

Talking about the importance of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel, in the BBC Reith Lectures in 2017, says: “We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. […] We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us to put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art”.

A historical novel is thus more than just an account of the past, it involves an inventive interpretation, a new way of looking at well-known evidence. The novelist’s goal is not to recreate the past, “but to recreate the texture of lived experience”, to enable an immersion into a moment in history.

Author Siddhartha Sarma.

Plausible immediacy

Twilight in a Knotted World is written in the best tradition of historical fiction. Without compromising his commitment to historical facticity, Sarma does not defeat the reader with the weight of his research. The novel proceeds in a manner that makes history less a matter of laboured authenticity and more a journey of thrilling discovery.

Sarma animates the past with plausible immediacy, as the reader is drawn into the private thoughts, doubts and reflections of the novel’s protagonist, Sleeman, who drafts with assiduous diligence the blueprint of imperial governmentality. The captivating episodes of Sleeman’s adventures in pursuit of the Phansigars are punctuated by luminous moments of his affective life – his personal relationships, his intellectual ambitions, his reflective self-doubts, and his dogged and detached commitment to work.

We see Sleeman’s comradely relationship with his wife Amelie, who in Sarma’s novel plays a critical role in putting together a book on the coded language of the Phansigars. We see Sleeman’s reverential delight in the company of Brian Hodgson, Horace Wilson, and James Prinsep – the polymaths who create the monumental archive of Orientalist knowledge.

In one of the most poignant scenes in the novel we see Sleeman struggling to survive, rambling in feverish delirium, as doubts, pain, and terrifying loneliness fog his conscious, pragmatic mind. In his dreams “...[h]e saw his father. He saw the Stratton of his childhood…dreamt of his mother and brothers and sister...he saw himself once more taking the officer’s commission in the Bengal army… Time stretched on through such visions and memories. Empires rose and fell…”

As Sleeman sets out to follow the brief of the officials of Government House, he is faced with challenging encounters that provoke him to question the wisdom and legitimacy of colonial interventions. For instance, the native resistance to imperial procedures and intentions is brilliantly articulated by a Brahmin widow who registers her defiance of the law against Sati by questioning the relevance of laws that do not address structural and societal inequities.

Sleeman discovers that the success of the Phansigars’ murderous expeditions was possible because of caste-based travel protocols that left travellers vulnerable. The inception of the Penal Code, the use of forensic science for criminal investigations, the necessity of a population census to exercise state control – some of the foundational procedures of modern administration – could be introduced on the basis of Sleeman’s meticulous record of his experiential observations and copious documentation.

However, Sleeman remains the unacknowledged foot soldier in these grand initiatives. In the course of his adventurous and arduous missions, he gradually learns and unlearns the land he chooses to call home, he begins to understand the gaping disconnect between the imperial centre and its peripheries. As the engine of the empire begins to roar, Sleeman and his intellectual compatriots could hear “the signs of discontent among the people…the subterranean murmurs…” of resistance, and observe recalcitrant people preparing for insurrections.

What makes the novel both historically illuminating and of great contemporary relevance is the investigation of issues of surveillance and governance, the relationship between the police and citizens, caste and gender – issues that remain knotted in postcolonial India. Twilight in a Knotted World brilliantly traces the genealogy of those prejudices and procedures, sensibilities and structures, inequalities and ineluctable social dynamics that continue to define and haunt modern India.

Antara Datta teaches English Literature at Delhi University.

Twilight in a Knotted World, Siddhartha Sarma, Simon and Schuster.