CHILDREN OF KALI: Through India in Search of Bandits, the Thug Cult, and the British Raj

Kevin Rushby, Author . Walker $27 (292p) ISBN 978-0-8027-1418-3

Over the course of centuries, the Indian thug cult (thug is a Hindi word meaning "deceiver") murdered an estimated one million travelers before it was eradicated by the British Raj. Today, notorious, murderous bandit Veerappan similarly plagues the established order. English writer Rushby (Hunting Pirate Heaven, etc.) charmingly narrates his pursuit of both Veerappan (who still eludes security forces, as related in last year's Veerappan [Ecco], by Sunaad Raghuram, and remnants of the thugs, a legendary association whose members strangled in honor of the goddess Kali. Rushby vividly depicts figures like William Henry Sleeman, the British officer who in the 1830s and '40s "hunted down and captured over 3,000 thugs," who were hanged, transported or imprisoned for life. Accounts of Sleeman's exploits titillated British readers, tarred Indians as deceitful savages and helped lead to the punitive Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, based on the idea that criminality was hereditary. Overall, Rushby terms the reaction to the thugs bigoted, "unbalanced and unjust." In addition to history, the author provides a robust travel narrative, with humorous detours (he lodges in a monkey-infested hotel) and unsettling moments (a menacing evening with rural policemen in a violent, corrupt region) and memorable figures, such as a gangster–turned–social worker and a ganja-smoking holy man who confirms Kali's continued covert importance in Indian life as a symbol of positive power rather than violence. A pleasure to read, this is a droll portrait of a lively, fevered contemporary India by a writer attuned to colonialism's ironies. 26 color illus., 1 map not seen by PW. (June)

Reviewed on: 06/02/2003
Release date: 04/01/2003
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