Indians have been peripatetic for centuries, travelling both within the country and abroad, and with British rule, employment-related middle-class migration picked up. Some planned their ventures meticulously, often following family members who had made good in the growing urban areas; for others, an often dramatic serendipity was instrumental in long journeys away from home. When he was a young man of seventeen, Harcharan Bandyopadhyay — father of the Christian preacher, Kalicharan Bandyopadhyay, and grandfather of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay — was spotted by Major Sleeman, the infamous “slayer of thugs”, as he bravely beat to death a snake that had ventured into the former’s tent. This was in the Hooghly district, around 1829, where Sleeman had pitched camp. Close to a century later, Harcharan’s daughter, Nistarini Debi, recounted the incident to her biographer in Sekeley Katha (An Old-fashioned Tale); she was unlettered and it is possible that she was persuaded to speak about her life because the chronicler-nephew was interested in knowing more about some of the eminent men in her family.
Sleeman sahib had known zamindar Rammohan, Harcharan’s father-in-law, and hearing of the young lad’s hard times, appointed him an assistant writer. Soon, “seating him in the palanquin carrying injured soldiers, he took Harcharan away with him”.
Sleeman was on a constant look out for well-built young men with a penchant for adventure, who would find hunting down thugs a worthwhile occupation. The handsome Harcharan fitted the bill, and when, by the mid-1830s, Sleeman’s anti-thuggee operations were responsible for over 100,000 square miles of India, he found a niche for himself in the growing bureaucratic structure at Jubbalpore. While post-Saidians argue that thugs were no different from other criminals and that the thuggee did not exist, some cite Sleeman’s impressive database of records based on genealogies, testaments, village histories, maps and cartographic visuals to prove that the institution did exist.
Those revisiting the phenomenon of organized terror of a subject people against itself describe the thugs’ depredations and commitment to chiefly bloodless murder by strangulation; their distinctive modus operandi was to kill before committing robbery (picture). While figures are difficult to be sure of, Mike Dash (Thug: The True Story of India’s Murderous Cult) feels that the thugs killed about 50,000 men, women and children at a minimum — much less than the fanciful estimates of Sleeman and others.
Whatever the truth about thugs may be, Harcharan rose rapidly in the hierarchy, though for months his perturbed family did not know where he had disappeared. He soon became a favourite of the Major sahib and when his monthly salary went up to thirty rupees, he contacted his family who were “delighted at the thought of seeing money”. His moment of glory came when he was transferred to Chhapra in Bihar from the headquarters at Jubbalpore.
Nistarini describes his path to success in detail. He was assigned the task of ridding the river of the crocodile menace as well as dealing with thugs. If any woman got into the river with jewels, the crocodiles would carry her off; her dead body would be found floating later. Nothing would happen to the men. Harcharan surmised that this was not the work of the crocodiles but of thugs. One day, he put on a woman’s clothes and jewels and tied a rope around his waist. Instructing two persons to hold on to the free end of the rope while standing at the bank, he got into the water. As soon as he got in, something appeared to be pulling him away into the deep. Harcharan then signalled to those waiting by pulling at the rope and caught hold of his aggressor. When he reached the shore, everyone saw that Harcharan had dragged along a thug. The minute he let him go, a crowd collected. Seeing no option, the fellow tried to look downcast and ashamed; but Harcharan landed the thug a mighty slap. And the thug fell down with that one blow. This incident paved the way for Baba’s success in the future.
An elated Harcharan now moved to Gorakhpur, and brought his two wives with their children to join him. Nistarini was born here around 1832 and also spent her early years in the town. Travelling considerable distances became a part of the family’s life, and when a suitable bridegroom who fitted the requirements of their sub-caste, that of kulin Brahmins, could not be found for Nistarini in the areas that Harcharan was familiar with, he decided that she should be sent back to the ancestral village, Khanyan, in the Hooghly district. Together with “my two mothers”, three sisters and three brothers, including the two-year-old Kalicharan, the family and its entourage of attendants started the long journey. This was in 1842: “there were no railways in those days. What takes a day today took us a full month.” The party arrived in the Vindyachal region in three or four bullock-driven carts and changed into boats at Varanasi. When they reached Tribeni, a place of pilgrimage in the northern most part of Bansberia town, it was the palanquin-bearers’ turn to take over for the final leg to Khanyan.
A much-married older man was found for Nistarini, who was over 12 at the time of her marriage. However, she continued to live with her own family and commented that “I had hardly seen my husband’s face”. In keeping with kulin traditions, her husband had no fixed home, travelling as he did among the houses of his many wives, collecting whatever he could for his survival as he went along. Much of Nistarini’s life appeared to have been punctuated by travel, as she too had to divide her time between her parents’ home and, later, those of her various male relatives. There is no mention of parda, and it is possible that as a family of migrants, for whose women travelling and a certain amount of exposure to the world beyond were a way of life, the strict norms of upper-caste society were not always feasible. By her middle years, Nistarini was familiar with all modes of transportation, including train journeys on the newly-opened line with her youngest nephew, Tarini Charan, who had got a job in the Morse office of the railways at Halisahar. Her younger brother, Kalicharan — a protégé of the missionary and educationist, Alexander Duff, and later a well-respected Christian preacher — supported Nistarini financially as well as emotionally, even to the extent of encouraging her to live in a room alone in Calcutta when oppression by her sisters-in-law became unbearable.
Two of Harcharan’s grandsons chose to run away — but unlike their grandfather, travel did not bring them much success. However, it did bring accolades and fame to Bhawani, his eldest grandson, later known as Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, who died exactly a hundred years ago this year. A controversial figure, he became a Catholic who also preached the Vedanta, called himself a Hindu Catholic and would attend Annie Besant’s lectures on theosophy — and then proceed to give counter-lectures. But not before he had been through a phase with the Brahmo Samaj, led by Keshub Sen, and travelled all the way to Hyderabad in Sind (now in Pakistan) to teach in a school.
This was in 1888. Three years later, he became a Catholic. Like Harcharan, Brahmabandhab travelled to Jubbalpore for an unusual form of employment: he established a short-lived kasthalika matha or a Catholic monastery, whose aim was to Indianize all the teachings of Christianity. Not unexpectedly, this did not meet with the approval of the order — although he continued to teach there for a few years, keeping alive the family’s connections with central India. Finally, he became an ardent nationalist, working with Rabindranath Tagore on the establishment of Santiniketan.
When being shared among her relatives became too tiring and stressful for Nistarini, she agreed to go away to Kashi and live on her own. The point of her decision was not joining an ashram but her choosing to live on her own. Her family visited her off and on, and it was here that she dictated her reminiscences, by the light of a small kerosene lantern. By then, her eyes were rheumy and weak. But one can imagine them lighting up as she recounted the several and varied journeys and escapades of this interesting family — one of a growing number for whom migration and travel became the route to employment and mobility.