The Thing about Thugs by Tabish Khair
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 (Originally HarperCollins, 2010)
December 23rd, 2012
The thing about The Thing about Thugs that’s most pleasing to me is the way it’s told, the way the narrative perspective and style shifts. There’s the first-person narration of a present-day author-figure who finds a bundle of notes from the mid-1800s in his grandfather’s library in India: the notes are in Farsi and are accompanied by a newspaper clipping about a disappeared English nobleman and a pamphlet about the gruesome murder of a woman in London. Then there’s the story that author tells, which is partly the story of that murder and others: it’s not a mystery, exactly, because it’s clear who is committing the murders and how and why. That story is mostly in third-person, but with first-person interjections: the author “seeing” the past, or rather, seeing his way into it through the story told in the notes. Other sections of the book are presented as bits of other texts: excerpts from a book by Captain Meadows, an English military man and phrenology enthusiast about one Amir Ali, a “Thug” he met in India whom Meadows claims is now reformed, and then excerpts from Ali’s own texts (never-to-be-sent letters to the woman he loves) and then also excerpts from newspaper articles about the murders. Late in the book, yet another narrator enters: much of the book’s last section is told from the first-person perspective of an opium-addicted Irish ex-soldier who is married to an Indian woman Amir Ali knows. Which sounds, maybe, like too many narrative threads, too much shifting, but I didn’t think it was: the perspective and what was happening always felt clear, and the shifts kept things interesting.
Another highlight of the book for me is the setting: Victorian London with its dank alleys and grand houses and the stinking Thames, and people from everywhere. I love passages like this:
Could one even talk, let alone plot, in this crowd, this roaring vortex in the heart of London, wondered John May. Or perhaps this was exactly where one could plot, so rife was the air with voices and sounds, the bustle of horses and omnibuses, the ladies and gentlemen trying their best to walk in bubbles through the milling crowd, the foreigners with their myriad tongues, the country squires riding in from Cumberland or Westmorland, the servants, grooms and lackeys running about, the waiters in the taverns shouting their orders, the potboys, beggars, lascars, hawkers, tinkers, gypsies, that omnipresent West Indian blackie wrapped in his strange garment, made of the rigging and sails of ships, who sang and sold handwritten songs signed ‘January Monday’… Who would, who could overhear in the midst of this din? (67-68)
There’s also lots of interesting stuff thematically: colonialism and racism and seeing what we want to see and hearing what we want to hear, but most of all a concern with narrative, with stories: the book says this of the author-figure’s grandfather’s house, but it’s true of London too, and of the world in general:
What else but shadows and stories? For shadows accrete to stories as surely as stories emerge from shadows. (1)
Amir ends up in London because of a story, a fiction: he gains passage to England with Captain Meadows by claiming to have been part of a murderous religious cult, though the real story of his past and the reason he wants to leave India, which he narrates in his letters to his love, is something else entirely. But at one point in the book Amir feels like he’s somehow become the thug he’s pretended to be, like his telling the stories of his murderous past has somehow brought murderousness into being. (“When do we tell stories, and when do stories tell us?”, he wonders (178).)
That said, there were chunks of this book that were slow going, though things really picked up when the narrative of the opium-addicted ex-soldier was introduced: at that point, the book started reading more like a straight mystery, as a certain subset of characters tried to find the identity of the murderer(s). The ex-soldier’s wife is quite the detective, and if Khair wrote mysteries with her as the protagonist, I’d totally read them.