This relatively short novel is on the life of a thug named Firangia and his extramarital affair with a Maratha princess named Chanda Bai. Author Mukta Singh-Zocchi’s narrative style is folklore-type and the story is woven with a historical background that of the Maratha prime minister, Balaji Baji Rao II’s exile imposed by the British.
In Chanda Bai, one can see the semblance of a patriotic warrior, who on the face of a foreign invasion attempts to save her motherland. The folktale-style narration keeps the story together even though the rituals and events in the story seem a bit absurd to the fanatics of ‘written’ history. However, with the background of historical events, The Thugs and a Courtesan stands out among other Indian writings in English in our time in its ambition and impact.
Mukta Singh-Zocchi is born in Ithaca, New York and raised in New Delhi. The Thugs and a Courtesan is her first novel. The story begins as the narrator Zalim Singh raises the curtain to a series of curious events, people and locations. Zalim Singh himself belongs to the clan of thugs, who at a time long ago ruled the wooden landscapes and lonely trade routes in Northern India. They looted the travelers and lived on the plunder.
In the novel, however, thugs aren’t mere robbers. The Thugs and a Courtesan is crucial in terms of how the protagonist is portrayed. He is not the all-good, kind and benevolent single hero who falls in love with the love of his life. Instead, the protagonist is a cruel, merciless thug, who does not hesitate to execute his prey in the name of the goddess Kali, the pagan goddess of violence and death. The Thugs and a Courtesan questions several norms of morality using its subtle narration and plot. One might read questions of moral urgency such as ‘why is killing unacceptable?’ and ‘why cannot a man take more than one woman as wives?’ while reading between the lines as being asked by the novel.
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Chanda Bai represents the spirit of nationality and also the quest for power and ambition. Firangia is involved in the mission of his life that is to put to an unhesitant death whoever he or his gang of thugs come across. Killing seems to be the only motif the band of thugs is born to perform. And in the stage of the novel, this motif seems to fit not so naturally either. The lacking logic behind all the strangling and murders are explained away as the mindless and immoral commitment to Kali, the death goddess. In this sense, the apprehension that Mukta Sing-Zocchi’s novel brings back India from the textbooks of the age-old orientalists, who were dedicated to prove that India is a land of snake charmers and magicians cannot be dismissed.
For those who are interested in an Indian English fiction with a folklore touch to its narration, The Thugs and a Courtesan would be satisfying. Mukta Sing-Zocchi has succeeded in bringing tension and emotional conflict even through the haze and matrix of life and times in the pre-independent India. Published by Srishti Publishers and Distributors, The Thugs and a Courtesan has a beautiful cover art too. Sometimes, covers do speak the truth.