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“Terror in a square of cloth”: India through the Eyes of John Masters


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Drafted on 11 March 2011 and presented at the National Seminar on Indian Culture through British Eyes, held at N. S. Patel Arts College, Gujarat. Published as a blog post 15 April 2023.


John Masters (1914-1983) in many novels records and reflects upon the diverse aspects of Indian life: politics, history, and culture. One can think of his reflections on the sepoy mutiny in The Nightrunners of Bengal (1951), the thugs in The Deceivers (1952), the Aryan-Dravidian clash in The Venus of Konpara(1961), and the British exodus from India in Bhowani Junction (1954). This paper attempts to understand one aspect of Indian reality as represented in John Masters. And that is the Thugee cult and burning of suttees or widowed Hindu women which had been part of Indian reality since medieval times.


A group of thugs around 1894

As is well known, the thugs[1] were the inhabitants of the forests of Bengal in particular and India in general. They were mass murderers and their target was travellers who used to travel vast territories by foot or on the horse. They would murder the travellers and take away their belongings. They flourished from the fourteenth century till the late nineteenth or even early twentieth century. They got membership in the group on either a hereditary basis or by observing certain rites. Their uniform usually consisted of a dhoti, a long handkerchief, and an axe. Before any expedition, they would worship Kali and look for good omens from her. They would always strictly adhere to the codes of conduct of the group. Thugs were also marked by their own modes and codes of communication exactly like the present-day terrorists. Many literary writers have recorded the encounters with thugs: Sharat Chandra’s accounts of Thangarhe, Bankim Chandra’s Kapalkundala, Tagore’s Rajarshi and Bibhutibhushan’s writings are some of the most famous ones. John Masters’s The Deceivers, therefore, becomes only one of the many literary representations of the thugs.

The purpose of this study is to see the limits of British representation of Indian reality and to reconsider some of the important issues this representation raises. Firstly, it is an obvious fact that the thugs are at present a dead reality for the simple reason that the coming of railways and other technological innovations have put an end to mass travelling along vast territories. But that does not deter their relevance for us. Among other things, the present-day terrorists can be taken as approximately equivalent to the thugs in medieval times.


Along with the question of terrorism in our times, the trope of deception is another issue that the novel raises. The notion of deceiving has a multi-layered semantic status in the novel. First, thugs are deceivers because they deceive travellers.[2] Second, William Savage the English officer and the central character deceives the deceivers. Third, Savage, split between two identities, deceives his English and then his Indian self. This is a complex self-deception. Fourth, William deceives the woman at the pyre who was about to become a suttee. Fifth, there is deception also among the deceivers themselves. Hussein one such deceiver betrays his fellow deceivers as he takes sides with the English officer. But Hussein is also representative of what can be called the Indian betrayal. Sixth, many people even the Rajahs take part in the act of deceiving.

But in the larger realm of literary writing and reading deception takes another meaning. First, the author uses the expression “my deceivers” in the postscript of the novel. Although he claims that he has relied both on facts at his hand as well as on his imagination are the readers not to some extent deceived as the author gives his deceivers and not purely the historical deceivers? Second, the experience of deception is undergone by the reader as he goes through the novel. Why does one deceive? The reader is tempted to ask. Maybe to survive thus prey like an octopus or fox[3] yet, being human, ethically justifying the action in terms of taking recourse to religious ceremonies like worship of Kali? Needless to say, in Masters’s narrative one doesn’t find the necessary search for reasons for one’s becoming a deceiver.


A third important issue that Masters’s novel raises is related to power politics and epistemological problems. First, the narrative contrasts Jesus with Kali and one is used to defeat the other’s power. Hussein who wishes to get rid of his fellow thugs clings to the cross which he takes from William’s wife. Hussein believes or is made to believe that Jesus is more powerful than Kali. On a similar level, there goes on a struggle for primacy between the law of the British and the law of the other, between Biblical and Indian myth of the origin of the world.

Second, British people in this novel seem to have accomplished the task of proving that they are human beings and protectors par excellence. Hussein is thus called the kala admi, the black other as well as the worshipper of the black goddess. And Hussein ironically understands that for sustenance British are the only resort.

Third, undoubtedly the narrator has a sympathetic attitude towards the Indians and William at times seems to resemble Rabindranath’s Gora in his love for India. William sympathizes with the plight of the suttee and also feels for the wretched travellers who are victimized by the thugs. Consequently, The Deceivers becomes a novel about a sympathetic British character. But this narrative of British sympathy seems to fail in understanding what makes a man become a deceiver, and how society is responsible for the production of the other.

Fourthly, William, the British officer is initially a stupid and effeminate character but in course of the novel, he accomplishes a so-called heroic task. The Deceivers consequently becomes less a novel about the Indians and more about British heroism. Thuggery becomes only an evil put forward to assert British heroism. William becoming the leader of the thugs or becoming the central hand in suppressing thuggery are instances of this idea of leadership.

Fifthly, William apparently seems to get success in the process of going native in knowing the other thus counters Spivak’s[4] thesis that the narrative of the subaltern cannot be brought out. William becomes a native/ thug/Indian in order to understand the native. Thus, apparently, he crosses the epistemological barriers. But even then, William is a split personality. Critically thought, he actually never becomes a pure thug or pure Indian. He is time again torn between his two identities. He deceives one part of himself for another. He never actually purely goes native. Thus for example in his consciousness both Indian and British women coexist even when he is about to become the leader of the thugs.

Sixthly, the limits of representation of Indian reality can be explained in a fourth way in terms of the woman question. While the British woman is portrayed as ruler-like and strong-minded the Indian woman at the pyre is not even named and remains a weak and superstitious character. The idea that a woman is not a china doll is assertive of an empowered woman in the British context. A parallel representation of Kali, suttee and Mary is made only to underscore the status of the “superstitious” Indian woman.


William constantly keeps written notes of his experiences with the thugs and duly buries them in the underground. Significantly, the fate of these buried notes remains buried and unknown at the end of the novel. Metaphorically speaking, the master narrative of Masters’s keeps many other narratives buried. What is the narrative of the waiting woman, the suttee, or even the thugs from their side?

Again, if the forest is taken to be space for the thugs it is also a setting for thrillers. Thugs give scope for Masters to become one of the most popular writers as he intermingles detective romantic, and travel narratives. One has a feeling that representation of India is less important here than establishing oneself as a successful writer.

As part of the issue of limits of representation, the question of the relation between history and literature is important. In his treatment of history, Masters seems to record that which resists historicization. Capturing Indian reality through an English mind and language apparently is successful. But even then certain loopholes are found at least in two ways. First, when the suttee speaks in English (in the film version, this is very much vivid[5]) the impression is that somehow we are watching a fairy-tale-turned-into-film. Isn’t the feel to some extent lost? Second, in spite of all safeguards the narrative seems to reveal the gaps in British understanding of omens, visions and faith of/in Kali.

From our above discussion, it is evident that John Masters’s representation of Indian reality does have certain loopholes. Add to this, uprooting of evil, unlike what John Masters suggests, is not to be performed through violence. After all, it is not the British who uprooted the thuggery, but it is more the coming of a new transport system which put an end to mass travelling and thus to thuggery. Even in today’s context highwaymen or figures like Phoolon Devi, or even the terrorists exist as other related versions of thuggery. What is needed is a gradual reformation of society which is responsible for the production of the Other. The problems of the Other need to be analyzed and carefully solved. John Masters’s prescribed solution thus seems to be unimportant. Violence after all is not a solution to man’s problems.

ENDNOTES [1] Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons, [2] I have consulted John Masters, The Deceivers (London: Michael Joseph, [1952] 1955). [3] This idea of deception has been put forward in Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1974] 1991). [4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ [5] I have in mind Nicholas Meyer’s 1988 film version of The Deceivers.

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