Friday, October 21, 2011

*The Thing About Thugs, by Tabish Khair

Fourth Estate/Harper Collins India, 2010
244 pp.
(will be published in the US by Houghton Mifflin, July 2012)

 "...since history has devoted
Just a few lines to you, I had more freedom

To fashion you in my mind's eye..."

 -- C. P. Cavafy (epigram)
The Thing About Thugs is a difficult book to pigeonhole into a single category, and I'm not even going to try. It is part thriller, part examination of London's Victorian invisible underclasses, a look at the flaws in "superior" Western rationalism and the attitudes behind British imperialism, and it is a novel which turns  the familiar colonial narrative on its head.

In Bihar, India, a young man is sitting in the library of his grandfather's house, which was once filled with shelves brimming with books.  In one of these he has come upon a book of handwritten notes in Farsi, which belonged to one Amir Ali, along with a newspaper clipping reporting the death of a British lord and "scholar of phrenological science" on board a ship headed for Africa.  His grandfather's library was filled with books by Dickens, Mayhew, William T. Meadows and Jane Austen among others; later libraries he would visit would also help him to imagine the story connecting the notebook and the report of the British lord's death.  This is the frame on which the story of Amir Ali is told, and during the course of the story the author  returns to reflect on writing,  his life and other things of interest. 

 Amir Ali has come to London with the help of Captain William Meadows, who is writing a book on the Thug Cult of India. It is 1837; the book will eventually be published in 1840, but for now, Meadows is finishing up a series of interviews with Amir Ali, who for reasons of personal safety had to leave India, found out about Meadows, and told him a  story of his life in the Thug Cult.  It was, of course, made up, but Meadows didn't know that.   Meadows is also a member of the London Society of Phrenology, the most current "scientific" fad, one that laid out a person's destiny depending on the shape of his skull.   Lord Batterstone, another phrenologist,  is  building a "Theatre of Phrenological Specimen." He hopes his collection of the most exotic  skulls will put the lid on the currently-popular theories of George Combe and put Meadows "who had, since his return from India with his reprieved thug, Amir Ali, taken society by such storm."  Batterstone is also toying with the idea of a trip to the Congo in hopes of more specimens.  While Meadows is tending to his narrative based on Ali's fictitious account of being a Thug, Ali, in the meantime, is writing down the real story of his life in Farsi, which he hopes will be read someday by the object of his affections, a part-time maid named Jenny in Meadows' household.  Jenny also  happens to be the niece of the first victim of an extraordinary series of crimes.

Just who committed these outrages is a matter taken up by the local news reporter, who notes that  "no Christian" could have done this -- that this sort of crime is associated with  "other, hotter climes, with people reared on suspicions and barbarities, and not on the milk of human mercy that flows through Christian veins in the lands of civilization" and " some heathen, recently imported into our parts, who either practices a devilish or esoteric rite or consumes human flesh."

But despite all of their enlightened scientific reasoning, the London police are unable to solve these crimes, and as they increase in number, the same newspaper reporter stirs up the pot regarding  immigrants coming to London:
"There are officers to inspect and certify the goods that are downloaded at West India and East India docks at the Isle of Dogs and the London Dock Company's docks at Wapping.  But only if the goods are dead and inanimate.  Every day hundreds of living goods are downloaded at those very docks, and they slip into the great city of London with hardly any inspection.  There is no one to test if these living goods are of sufficiently high quality or not, to certify if they are undamaged and not rotted."
With  the public fanning of the flames pointing to a "heathen" perpetrator, it's time to settle things once and for all.  A group of the invisible underclasses, "lascars, ayahs, beggars, some impossible-to-place oddities..., and riff-raff, mostly but not entirely from the lands of Hindoostan" decide it's time to take matters into their own hands.   

If this was all there was to this book, it might make for an interesting Victorian-style crime novel, but there's a great deal more in here.  The story is really the frame holding together for "novelized history," as the writer puts it, done in a most tongue-in-cheek kind of style.  Victorian London, as the seat of the British Empire, has its "ghosts" to be dealt with -- colonialism; the justification of racist attitudes via pseudosciences based on western rationalism and its fear of the outsider; society's treatment of the underclasses -- as well as the caste system  among the middle and upper classes along with their servants.    But at its heart, The Thing About Thugs is a story about stories and the people who tell them: the narrator back in Bihar acknowledges that there are things missing in Amir Ali's notes, so he has to "fill in the gaps."  In his story, he turns the colonial narrative around to the point where Amir Ali and the ragtag group of  lascars and the rest of the people one normally considers as marginalized are the heroes of the day,  while the enlightened Londoners are either easily duped, led astray by their dependence on enlightened reason, or at their very worst, savage murderers, or filled with the potential to become the future Kurtz, a la Heart of Darkness.

I get the sense that Khair had a great time writing this book, and I had an equally great time reading it.  I realize that not everyone is going to agree with me, largely because many readers may have trouble with the multiple narrative strands and the switching between time and place. And many people may be put off with the subject matter -- I mean, beheadings are never a fun topic, and not everyone will like the Victorian murder story format. I must admit to a bit of confusion at the start of the novel, and had to stop and take stock of what I actually thought was happening here in terms of structure -- you should see my little notebook full of question marks. But once I figured it out, I was off and never stopped.   There is an excellent book underneath all of the potentially problematic issues, and if people can get underneath the surface of this novel, they will be richly rewarded.  I actually am in awe when I find a book this good. 

fiction from India


  1. I don't know if this is a good thing or not, but the author of this book posted a link to this review on his facebook page. He called it "interesting;" now I'm wondering if he thought it stinks!

  2. The beheadings are a bit offputting, I agree. But I think this was a great review! And you even have me thinking about reading this one! So the author ought to be thrilled :)

  3. Actually he cleared up that mystery. I think he enjoyed it. Col, this book is so incredibly freaking good that right now I'm actually considering a huge book purge and a total shift in my reading habits. Between this one and Jimmy the Terrorist, I've discovered that if all books were on the same scale as those two, I would probably become a better reader.

    One thing that struck me after reading this book is that the Thug Cult was a cult of assassins --- now I realize that some of the Londoners who populate this book also fit the bill.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.