Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Sometimes, you can take the man out of the cult but you can’t take the cult out of the man. Such is the fate that meets poor Amir Ali in Victorian-era England. Having been brought up in the shadows of the ancient Indian “thuggee” cult, Amir Ali decides he has to escape his fate and moves to the Indian city of Patna from a small town in Bihar state, Phansa. Once in Patna, Amir’s path intersects that of a British dabbler in the sciences, Captain Meadows. With Meadows, Amir Ali travels to England at a time when phrenological science is all the rage.

Feeding the growing popularity of phrenology, the study of skulls, is a whole set of scientists, some with views more extreme than the others. It is only a matter of time before mere grave-robbing to get at prized “specimens” is not enough--now these phrenologists must hire killers to get at the more unusual “things” as the skulls are called. So begins a series of gruesome and macabre murders in London piloted by one particular phrenologist, Lord Batterstone.

In an ironic twist, the extreme wing of the phrenologists use their science to “prove” that entire races such as Africans and Asians are predisposed to violence. The “thuggee” cult born in India, where the religious cult members were also assassins, serves to underscore this point. The finger of suspicion eventually points at Amir Ali. He meets all the qualifiers -- he is Oriental, has thuggee blood in him, and a weirdly shaped skull to boot. He is bound to be the murderer. He is not. A whole host of colorful characters who are Amir’s friends, eventually help clear his name.

Tabish Khair, the book’s author, teaches in Denmark and has said that the inspiration for the book came from a book about thugs he found in his grandfather’s library. Indeed the book is told through a number of voices and one such is a teen boy going through his grandmother’s old library in Phansa village in Bihar. The book, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, works best when it describes both the “thuggee” cult (even is this part reads a little textbookish in style) and the London of Victorian times. Khair does a fantastic job populating the book with a whole host of colorful characters. He also builds the creepy atmosphere of the city lit by gaslights and eternally covered by fog: “Night descends on London once again. Descends? No, It rises slowly, in the overlooked nooks and crannies of this teeming metropolis. First, it crawls like a spider between the cobblestones. Then it spills like ink on the ground, between the buildings, from the walls, under the bridges. It grows out of the corners.”

Where The Thing About Thugs doesn’t quite work is in making the case for how justice was finally meted out. The resolution to the murders depends on one coincidence which seems like quite a stretch. Khair also tries hard to shed light on the rampant racism targeted at Orientals and the “other” and his efforts largely work even if they get a bit repetitive towards the end of the book.

While The Thing About Thugs doesn’t coalesce into a strong novel, it is a good trip to Victorian England and a “science” not many of us know about. It might be worth reading for these reasons alone.

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