“The Tales of Man Singh” is the book for you if you’re even remotely interested in the legendary dacoits of the Chambal Valley. Kenneth Anderson wonderfully takes the reader in the pre-independence era and the early years of independence. She creates a sketch of rural India the way it actually was, which wasn’t ideal, to say the least.
The book is a collection of six stories, or rather incidents, all related to Raja Man Singh Rathore. Anderson has also penned a brief biographical piece at the end. Man Singh comes across as the uncrowned king of the Dacoits of central India, which includes the modern-day Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. All the six stories glorify Man Singh, as a man with a golden heart, who raids the rich and cruel, to help the poor and weak. Here are the six stories.
1. Chota Singh of the CID
In the first story, the only one set in the British era, a CID Inspector sets on an undercover operation to kill or trace the hideouts of Man Singh and his group of Dacoits. Just a few days into his secret mission, the Inspector realizes the true essence of why people love and respect the fugitive, and he himself begins to admire Man Singh. The way Chota Singh is described will make you believe it completely, and you almost start liking the guy.
2. Jhani and Lotibai
The second story is kind of a bit over the top, where Man Singh turns into a love guru cum motivational speaker, who inspires a heart-broken kid to join the armed forces in independent India. However, what the story conveys beautifully, is a love story, that is quite heart-warming. You will get glimpses of the social evils, still prevalent today, like male dominance, and caste and class-based discrimination. That said, the story seems to be too dramatic, and unbelievable on many occasions. No couple gets intimate in an old government guest house which has been closed for several months, and that too when they’ve discovered love for each other moments ago.
3. The Policeman who Sought Reward
The third story is the least intense of the lot and is almost comical. Two police constables are on the hunt of Man Singh, not because it’s their duty, but for the bounty of Rs.15,000 which government had placed on the dacoit. In present terms, the amount sounds pretty less to risk your life, but back in the day, gold was about Rs.50/10gm, which equates to more than a crore rupees today. The story depicts the light-heartedness of the dacoit king, and shows that he had mercy even for his enemies.
4. The Invasion of The Ravine Kingdom
Set in the early days of independence, the fourth story is about how a senior police officer sets to find and kill Man Singh. The meticulous planning seems to be formidable, but the end is dreadful. The end of this story makes you question the morality of the dacoits, an important aspect which the book fails to showcase sufficiently. In fact, the book almost celebrates Man Singh and the crimes he commits, which isn’t completely wrong either.
5. The Rich Landlord and the Poor Maiden
The fifth story is a classic depiction of the atrocities committed by the landlords and moneylenders right after independence. Interestingly, it also depicts a young girl in her teens who fights with a landlord who insulted her mother. While this is not astonishing today, women have always been presented in a weak and vulnerable state in the past, with rare exceptions like Mother India. The story moves forward and depicts how Man Singh watches over the villages, and safeguards as many people as possible from the wretched elite.
6. The Three Travelers and the American Journalist
The final story in the books seems to be from the last few of Man Singh’s prime years, and is probably the most emotional one. The story begins with three friends from down south on a journey up north, and their accidental, yet a friendly encounter with the Man Singh and his army of bandits. What transpires will invoke strong nostalgia, and the kind of feeling you get when you see a sunset, or on the last day of college. You knew it would end, but didn’t want it to, isn’t it?
History of Man Singh
In the end, the book gives insight into the early life of Man Singh. It unfolds the unfortunate events that made him India’s greatest and most wanted dacoit leader. Anderson tries hard to make you empathize with the bandits and see the other side of the popular narrative. However, the reasons she gives for Man Singh turning into in blood-thirsty dacoit don’t seem to be compelling enough. Nonetheless, what astonishes the most is the fact that there was indeed a man like Raja Man Singh Rathore. His legend survives even decades after his death and will probably live for many more.
Ethos and Readability
Anderson makes you question the whole concept of morality and democracy. You can clearly see the elites taking advantage of the system, while the poor continue to get plundered. Was Man Singh the hero the author wants us to believe in? Or was he a mere fugitive, who throve on blood money? Whatever you decide, India has surely nurtured the Robinhood of the East, at least for some.
The language of the book gets a bit boring, though, and even unrealistic at times. For instance, a fat landlord who’s standing in the sun, won’t say something as dramatic as “where art thou?”. A simple “where are you” would have sufficed. Likewise, there are innumerable unnecessary words, the omission of which would’ve lightened the book at least by 15-20 pages. Nonetheless, read the book more like a documentary rather than a story, and you will thoroughly enjoy it.
Anyone who thinks Robin hood was great, must definitely grab this book at the earliest.
If you like this post please check out my previous blog post on “The Emperor’s Riddles – Satyarth Nayak“
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Noman is a literature expert, news analyst, and content creator. When not writing news and other content for clients, he likes to read novels and talk about them. Born and raised in a ghetto of Mumbai, he is vocal about the social issues facing the slums and his community. Noman is the co-founder of Bombay Reads, a platform where he likes to write and discuss books.