The Thing About Thugs | Tabish Khair
Were the thuggees, the notoriously brutal highwaymen of 19th century India, a self-serving exaggeration of the British? Could they have been, for instance, regular robbers who looted unsuspecting travellers—but did not necessarily garrote or bury their victims? In recent years, revisionist historians have argued for this theory, believing it to be an excuse for a tighter policing regime in the wake of the revolt of 1857, when itinerant “invisibles”—nomads, labour-for-hire, performing artistes—were the native conduits of information.
In a multilayered dissection of the Victorian empire that is only tangentially about thuggee, Tabish Khair makes full use of these invisibles in The Thing about Thugs but, in a clever subversion of the post-colonial narrative, places them in London, the Mother City. His protagonist is Amir Ali and his mentor is Captain Meadows—both undoubtedly a play on Philip Meadows Taylor’s popular 19th century novel Confessions of a Thug, featuring one Ameer Ali—who is writing a book, Notes on a Thug: Character and Circumstances, based on Ali’s account of his life as a thuggee. Just to blur the division between perception and reality, Notes is also a primary source for the first-person narrator of The Thing about Thugs—who may or may not be Khair himself.
Noir: In a deliciously subversive take on the history of thuggees, Khair’s book is set in Victorian London.
The obfuscation is deliberate. At one point, Ali muses: “Can stories—told by yourself, told by others—turn us into something else? Why is it that, no matter how we grasp reality, no matter what reality we grasp, we need to don the glove of stories?... Are we then nothing but the playthings of language? When do we tell stories, and when do stories tell us?”
Repeatedly, Khair mocks the scientific certainty, the Worship of Reason that Englishmen of a certain class used with missionary zeal in their bid to civilize India and its people. Ali’s genuflections to superior Western wisdom, as he narrates his story to Meadows, for instance, would be see-through to anyone but the most unsceptical. Yet Meadows comes off better than Lord Batterstone, whose fanatical devotion to the study of phrenology—an early 19th century term for a discipline that believed skull dents and dimensions determined character and tendencies—leaves no room for doubt or question.
The shadowy Batterstone, and even Meadows and Ali, however, pale in contrast to the brilliant cast of “invisibles” that Khair assembles to depict the London Underground, so to say. Yanked together from all corners of the world by the empire, they include out-of-work lascars and an invalid Irishman, West Indian songwriters and the daughter of a mother shipped off to Australia, a sometime Punjabi nanny who answers to the name Qui Hy (Koi hai) and, most wondrous of them all, Ustad, who lives in the sewers of the city and calligraphs the walls and ceilings with Urdu poetry and excerpts from the Quran. On the other side of the balance are three Englishmen of the lower orders, each a bigger rogue than the last.
The Thing about Thugs: HarperCollins, 244 pages, 399.
Khair does a commendable job of braiding the various strands of the narrative, but his obvious sympathies with the empire’s Great Unwashed come in the way of novelistic cohesiveness. In the last third, The Thing about Thugs shifts focus almost entirely from race and prejudice, its primary concerns, to run through foggy streets in the manner of a whodunnit. A series of crucial scenes at this point are described in the past tense; at a most taut juncture, Amir Ali dozes off, only to waken to an ambiguous ending.
Still, Thugs makes for intellectually satisfying reading, by virtue of its redoubtable research and excellent atmospherics. By reintroducing imagination to the Indian novel in English without sacrificing relevance, Khair has done us all a favour.
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