Sunday, June 7, 2015

Mark Twain's Colors II: Thug Life

Review by Bill Doughty

The original Thugs killed for the joy of taking lives, according to Mark Twain, author of "Following the Equator." One sees parallels with the self-proclaimed Islamic State or "Daesh" (aka ISIL/ISIS).


Indian "thugs" from around 1865 in Peshawar, now part of Pakistan. (Photo from NPR)
The word "thug" comes from an actual sect of religious extremist terrorists – the Thugee – who strangled and robbed men, women and children two hundred years ago in India. Murders were often carried out after the Thugs had gained the trust of their victims.

Twain first heard about the Thugs in the mid 1800s and read and wrote about them when he visited Bombay (Mumbai) in 1896.
"Fifty years ago, when I was a boy in the then-remote and sparsely peopled Mississippi valley, vague tales and rumors of a mysterious body of professional murderers came wandering in from a country which was constructively as far from us as the constellations blinking in space – India; vague tales and rumors of a sect called Thugs, who waylaid travelers in lonely places and killed them for the contentment of a god whom they worshiped; tales which everybody liked to listen to and nobody believed..."
Twain devotes more than two chapters of his "Following the Equator" (Volume II) to discussing the Thugs, referencing a government report printed in Calcutta in 1840.


Thugee belief: gaining trust, distracting victims, then striking from behind.
He describes the report by Major Sleeman, of the British Indian Civil Service, as "a clumsy, great, fat, poor sample of the printer's art, but good enough for a government printing-office in that old day and in that remote region, perhaps."
"The Thugs were worshipers of Bhowanee; and to this god they sacrificed anybody that came handy; but they kept the dead man's things themselves, for the god cared for nothing but the corpse. Men were initiated into the sect with solemn ceremonies. Then they were taught how to strangle a person with the sacred choke-cloth, but were not allowed to perform officially with it until after long practice ... the expert's work was instantaneous: the cloth was whipped around the victim's neck, there was a sudden twist, and the head fell silently forward, the eyes starting from the sockets; and all was over. The Thug carefully guarded against resistance. It was usual to get the victims to sit down, for that was the handiest position for business."
Mark Twain aboard USS Mohican, 1895. (PBS)
Twain became captivated with learning more about the cult, which included teenage boys and elderly men. He lauded Britain's "noble" task to remove them. And he saw parallels in other cultures. Twain asks about The Why – "what was the impulse?" Then he draws a surprising conclusion:
"Apparently, it was partly piety, largely gain, and there is reason to suspect that the sport afforded was the chiefest fascination of all ... That must really be the secret of the rise and development of Thugee. The joy of killing! the joy of seeing killing done – these are traits of the human race at large. We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs of Spain and Nîmes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring. We have no tourists of either sex or any religion who are able to resist the delights of the bull-ring when opportunity offers ..."
Beautiful "splendid" colors then and now in India. (Photo from PBS)
Twain also looks disapprovingly on the 19th century big game hunters in India who killed tigers and elephants – not for meat or out of necessity, but for the "sport" and joy of killing. He shines a harsh light on human nature, but sometimes his light reflects beauty in fiery spectacle.  

"Following the Equator" sings with colors, especially during Twain's visit to Bombay. Here is part of his description of the trip to Gallé Face by the seashore:
"What a dream it was of tropical splendors of bloom and blossom, and Oriental conflagrations of costume! The walking groups of men, women, boys, girls, babies – each individual was a flame, each group a house afire for color. And such stunning colors, such intensely vivid colors, such rich and exquisite minglings and fusings of rainbows and lightnings! And all harmonious, all in perfect taste; never a discordant note; never a color on any person swearing at another color on him or failing to harmonize faultlessly with the colors of any group the wearer might join. The stuffs were silk – thin, soft, delicate, clinging; and, as a rule, each piece a solid color: a splendid green, a splendid blue, a splendid yellow, a splendid purple, a splendid ruby, deep and rich with smoldering fires – they swept continuously by in crowds and legions and multitudes, glowing, flashing, burning, radiant; and every five seconds came a burst of blinding red that made a body catch his breath, and filled his heart with joy. And then, the unimaginable grace of those costumes! Sometimes a woman's whole dress was but a scarf wound about her person and her head, sometimes a man's was but a turban and a careless rag or two – in both cases generous areas of polished dark skin showing – but always the arrangement compelled the homage of the eye and made the heart sing for gladness."
What happens next in the parade of colors – breaking Twain's revery – is jarring and insightful, contrasting cultures, appreciating diversity and showcasing Twain's laugh-out-loud sense of humor. A recommended read.


Twain's "Following the Equator" was suggested in 2012 by Rear Adm. John Kirby, former U.S. Navy Chief of Information and former Pentagon spokesperson, now State Department spokesperson.  "Twain has always been my favorite author. I love his humor, his wit and the ease and simplicity of his writing. 'Following the Equator' captures his essence best, in my view," Kirby wrote.

Twain captures the common shared values of humanity, good and bad – including Thug Life in India two centuries ago. Read our first installment of "Mark Twain's Colors" published last year on Navy Reads  here.

As for the original 'gees – Thugees – read a fascinating post by Lakshmi Gandhi at National Public Radio. Gandhi ties in other aspects of American culture, including thuggish-ruggish music and a new genre of literature known as thug-lit. The big revelation: how the term "thug" has been misused but is being reshaped, especially considering the original murderous group from which the word originates.

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