‘The Thing About Thugs,’ by Tabish Khair
“The Thing About Thugs” is an odd confection of a novel, set mostly in what looks like late-Victorian London. The streets are gaslit. The underworld teems with the flotsam of empire: lascars, Irishmen and so on, the undesirables of many nations. The city is overwhelmed with crime and prostitution and an influx of immigrants. Opium dens abound. And a serial killer is on the loose. Known as the “head cannibal,” he decapitates his victims after murdering them, but the heads are never found. The Metropolitan Police are baffled, as they were by Jack the Ripper, active in 1888, who also desecrated the bodies of his victims. Meanwhile, characters with names like One-Eyed Jack make shady deals in low taverns, and at the dinner tables of the upper classes Darwinian ideas are hotly debated. It feels as if we’re in the disillusioned twilight of the 19th century, but our narrator — or one of our narrators — sitting in his grandfather’s library “surrounded by Dickens and Collins,” claims that his story is set in 1837, the year Victoria ascended to the throne.
This is an anachronism. But the author, Tabish Khair, seems to relish his plot’s liberation from the more rigorous conventions of historical fiction. In his disregard for the proprieties, he’s like some of the characters he’s created in these bizarre but lively pages. For in his plotting, he scavenges so much material from so many different sources that his book at times resembles Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, its bits and pieces barely held together with coarse stitching.
It won’t do. Or, rather, it wouldn’t do if not for the flashes of imaginative verve and insight that here and there illuminate the book and somehow keep it afloat. A couple of serious ideas struggle to assert themselves, but halfheartedly. The position of the colonial subject in the imperial city is one. Another is the implicit claim that since every story is the product of other stories, a writer needn’t be shackled to notions of verisimilitude, historical precision, plausibility or even coherence. But if everything is possible then nothing really matters, and this is the risk Khair is running.
One major strand of the novel does read with a degree of authority and even originality. Amir Ali, a young man from “the ancient country of Hindoostan,” serves various narrative functions, chief among them his position as a suspect in the case of the “head cannibal,” which provides suspenseful drama toward the end of the book. Amir is also the lover of a house servant called Jenny, to whom he writes passionate letters in “cursive Farsi script” that tell the believable and at times moving story of his early days in his family’s ancestral lands, of how he lost his home and eventually fell in with an English gentleman, whose interest he aroused by claiming to be a thug.
Thuggee was a centuries-old Indian practice of robbing travelers by first winning their trust, then asphyxiating them. It had complex and long-established customs, handed down from father to son. All this Amir describes to the Englishman, a soldier-scholar who brings him back to London to live in his house — where Amir meets Jenny, to whom he explains the subterfuge. He’s making it all up so as to string along the Englishman, Captain Meadows.
But Meadows is a poorly drawn character. He lacks depth and dimension. We are simply meant to assume he’s a good man. He’s a student not only of thuggee but of phrenology. And it’s here that Khair’s project of nesting story within story, generating linkages between them, grows increasingly shaky. Phrenology, the study of the bony structure of the head, was based on the belief that character could be read from the skull’s formation. Another of the novel’s amateur scholars is Lord Batterstone. He’s similarly sketchy, a bad man who employs what in the 18th and early 19th centuries were called “resurrection men” to dig up fresh cadavers — “things,” in their slang — and sell them to medical schools for student dissections. The most infamous were Burke and Hare, who bypassed the recovery of corpses from graves and resorted directly to murder. One-Eyed Jack plays the role here.