The word “thug” is used universally to mean anyone who perpetrates mindless violence. But it’s often forgotten that it once had a very specific meaning – one so horrible it was the reason the word entered English in the first place. The Thugs were Indian roadside bandits, originally from what is now Madhya Pradesh in central India, who strangled and robbed unwary travellers, having previously befriended them. The word comes from the Sanskrit sthag, meaning to deceive or trick.
On the other hand Sleeman’s papers in the East India Office were concrete evidence of the extraordinary modern detective techniques he had developed to track down real people, and exhume real corpses. – who believes there were Thugs – describes the lists that Sleeman devised of Thugs’ aliases and distinguishing marks, of family trees and gangs, the maps of Thug routes and burial grounds. He had thick files of confessions. Thousands of Indians were tried, then hanged or transported to brutal penal colonies (virtually none was acquitted). Sleeman’s bigger claims, however, about an ancient, secret conspiracy of Kali-worshipping murderers, did not stand up to scrutiny, and seemed to owe more to his overheated imagination and revulsion towards Hinduism than to his interviews.
Among the Thugs: British Stoicism
It was the fascinating duality of Sleeman and the unknowability of the truth about the Thugs that at last gave me a route to writing about them – in fiction. Having written two long biographies, it seemed like a great departure, but in writing, I came to think that the phrase “historical mystery” is a kind of tautology. All history writing has to accept the ultimate unknowability of the past. In fiction you get to play with it.