An intricate fabric that dazzles in parts but falls apart in the end.
This is a story told across continents and by multiple voices. There is the narrator, a modern-day writer in the dusty town of Phansa in Bihar, making serendipitous discoveries in his grandfather's abandoned library.
There is Amir Ali, a reformed Indian thug, telling his story through the yellowing pages of Notes on a Thug: Character and Circumstances (1840), by Captain William T. Meadows (a takeoff on Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug, first published in 1839, in which the protagonist was called Ameer Ali.)
Ah, but Amir Ali is not what he seems — our narrator chances upon some letters written in Farsi by Ali to his Jaanam (beloved), the maid Jenny, in which he declares, “I am not what the Kaptaan wants me to be — I am not Amir Ali, the Thug.' So we have a third voice — that of Ali without his thuggee turban on. And briefly, there is a fourth — the “opium-befuddled” Irishman Paddyji (but more about him later).
As the story swings from India to England and voice to voice, Khair peoples the trans-Atlantic landscape with a string of edgy and wondrously inventive characters, most of whom emerge from the gloomy shadows and stinking, muck-laden by-lanes of London. Lying, cheating, murdering and beheading, they shuffle through the pages in a miasma of odours, eccentricities and transgressions. The last-mentioned being the operative word; few of the characters in this book stay on the right side of the law.
John May, for instance, is a specialist in skinning and ‘preparing' skulls, the grave-digging Shields keeps him in business by providing the skulls; and obsessive phrenologist Lord Battersea, one of the few interesting upper-class figures in the book, buys up those skulls — no questions asked.
They are surrounded by a colourful ensemble cast collected from various corners of the empire — opium peddlers, lascars, ex-slaves, prostitutes, men with murky pasts. Also, Paddyji's wife, an erstwhile Punjabi nanny called Qui Hy (Koi Hai to you and me), who runs a multinational network of informers; and Ustad, who lives in the sewers of London, which he decorates with exquisite Urdu calligraphy.
Khair clearly finds the underground in either country far more attractive than the upper reaches — and so do we. In the sewers, where Ustad lives, “There are entire herds of pigs, run wild; there are big cats; there are fugitives and criminals; and there are — here Fetcher's voice drops to a whisper — ‘them'. They are human, Fetcher avers, but no, they are not from above, not beggars, escaped prisoners or homeless Londoners. They never even go above. They were born and reared in the tunnels under London. Not ghosts, nor ghouls; they are human or half-human.”
Khair also presents some delicious ironies. While the Indian thug, Amir Ali, with a complexion that is “almost fair' and a demeanour that seems upper-class, is a reluctant recruit, his unwashed British counterparts slink about in opium dens and gutters as they go about their murderous jobs.
At a time when the historical jury is out on whether thuggee was as rampant in India as the British would like us to believe, or it was a construct used by them to wield a strong hand over the ‘natives', The Thing About Thugs throws up an opportune theory.
But thuggee is soon overtaken by English skulduggery and therein lies Khair's triumph: his evocative recreation of the seedier side of Victorian England. His research, and his elegant use of it, are both meticulous and skilful; you can smell those odorous, dingy by-lanes, see those shady figures through the London fog that seems to envelop much of this story.
But that eye for detail turns out to be a two-edged sword — the book slowly sinks under the weight of its minutae as the storyline peters out to a letdown of an ending. Besides, the narrative device of multiple voices (with an unsettling change of fonts in some chapters) tends to distract needlessly at times — and with rather inadequate rewards. Khair weaves an intricate fabric filled with exciting colours and motifs that dazzle in parts, only to let it all fall apart in the end. Pity, for this novel could well have risen above the gutters and sewers of London.
The Thing About Thugs; Tabish Khair, Fourth Estate, Rs. 399