It’s amazing the lengths colonial powers went to in order to justify oppressing civilizations which predated anything in the West by a good thousand years. By referring to India and points further east dismissively as the Orient or the Mysterious East, they turned vast sophisticated kingdoms into something dark and dangerous, in desperate need of the enlightenment only they could provide. As is often the case with ignorant people, what they couldn’t understand confused and scared them. Faced with something beyond their comprehension they did what any normal person would do. Instead of trying to learn more about it, they did their best to either subjugated it or belittle it.
While it was bad enough they would misinterpret and sensationalize another culture’s beliefs Victorian era Englishmen came up with all sorts of pseudo sciences to prove the superiority of, what they called, the Caucasian race over those with darker skins. One of the most popular in the mid 1800s was the science of phrenology — the study of the bumps on people’s heads and how they related to the brains within and the person’s character as a whole. Of course, the Caucasian’s head was an example of a superior brain and moral standards, and as a person’s skin colour darkened, well, you get the picture.
In his novel The Thing About Thugs, first published by Harper Collins India in 2010 and now being released in North America by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 24 2012, Tabish Khair turns this world on its head by showing it through the eyes of those “inferior” races. British literature of the times, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Wilkie Collin’s The Moonstone and on through the works of Rudyard Kipling emphasized and reinforced the Victorian world view. Khair not only points out the how ridiculous the philosophy of the day was, but he does so in a manner which takes the works in question to task for perpetuating the fallacy.
Amir Ali is from a small village in rural India. Orphaned at a young age he goes to live with his uncle, a small land owner, and his family. At one time his family’s holdings had been far greater, but another landowner has contrived to steal through various means the majority of their acres. While the methods used are illegal there is nothing Ali’s uncle is able to do as the other man’s wealth and willingness to employ violence ensure nobody with the authority to do anything about it will gainsay his activities. When Ali’s uncle is murdered he hatches a plot that will not only ensure those in the wrong are brought to justice, but will see him taken to England where he hopes to start a new life. He learns that a British gentlemen is looking to interview members of the cult of Kali known as Thugees to help him prove his theory that in spite of a skull shape indicating a predisposition for violence a lessor being can turn over a new leaf by exposure to the redeeming qualities of civilized Christian society.
Ali spins Captain William T. Mathews a tale painting himself as a young initiate into the cult which also incriminates the man responsible for his uncle’s death. As proof of his remorse he not only supplies the Captain with the names of his fellow cultists in the region, but offers as proof of their villainy the location where their most recent victims are buried. When Williams informs the local detachment of The East Indian Tea Company’s guard of the presence of Thugees in their territory and proof of their nefarious behaviour, they move quickly to arrest those responsible. Mathews is so enthused by his Thugees’ denouncement of his former life, he takes Ali back to London with him. Ali is then paraded through the drawing rooms of polite society by Mathews as an example of a barbaric assassin reformed by civilization.
Unfortunately for Ali, he told his story too well. For when London is shocked by a series of murders where the victim’s heads have been stolen it’s obvious to society and the newly formed Peelers (London police force named for their founder Robert Peel latter change to Bobbies to reflect his first name instead of the more provocative Peeler) that no white man, no matter what his class, could have carried out such grizzly deeds. It had to be one of those foreign devils who made their way back to the bosom of the empire from the colonies. Naturally it doesn’t take long for suspicion to fall upon the supposedly reformed Thugee Ali.
With the assistance of other members of London’s immigrant community Ali attempts to clear his name. This is one occasion where being beneath notice pays off as it allows them to keep an eye on those they suspect are responsible for the murders without anyone paying them the least bit of attention. There had long been a decent wage to be made supplying those studying medicine with body parts, Things, for those willing to do a little work with shovel and crowbar and no fear of graveyards at night. However for one group of resurrectionists, or body snatchers, looking to supply a prominent phrenologist with interesting shaped heads, the graveyards of London can’t meet their needs. Showing the initiative that forged an empire they find likely candidates among those who will be least missed and relieve them of their heads.
Khair does an excellent job of both recreating and ridiculing the Victorian era novel. In the case of the former he populates the book with recognizable character types from the period. Mathews is the well meaning and intentioned earnest hero type. Honourable, he actually steps forward and provides Ali with an alibi when he’s arrested and ensures he’s safe, firm in his conviction that anybody exposed to the benefits of good Christian/English society can be saved from their life of heathenism. While condescending and bigoted, at least he doesn’t believe they are inherently evil or that being poor or foreign makes you some sort of criminal. One only has to contrast him with a couple of the other characters; even his cook thinks he’s far too lax by keeping a dangerous coloured person in the house, to see why Ali feels a little guilty for having deceived him.
The author also takes writers from this, and other eras, to task in a roundabout way for their lack of imaginations. He has created a kind of narrator from what appears to be our era. It’s this man who comes across a series of letters in his grandfather’s library written in Farsi. (Muslims in India used to be able to read and write in Farsi, the language of Persia, as the Mughal empire in Northern India was originally Persian.) While it is a chore, because he doesn’t know very much Farsi, what he discovers are a series of letters from Ali in which he either describes the events in the book or makes allusions to things he’d obviously described to his addressee in person. Khair’s narrator is inspired by these letters and begins to imagine the events and filling in the blanks. He will occasionally pose the question as to how could he, somebody living in India, possibly describe London of the 19th century or the interior of a nobleman’s house. His answer is to show how by using his imagination, a knowledge of what these things look like gained from reading and extrapolating from his personal experiences, it’s not very hard to recreate a reasonably accurate picture of a time and place one’s never experienced.
Aside from being a wonderful piece of satire and a witty send up of 19th century novels, The Thing About Thugs also gives readers insights into life in London in that era from a far different perspective than has been previously offered. Even more so then today immigrants were looked on with suspicion, and they were relegated to live in the poorer parts of the city. Here, at least, they would turn into just another one of those people beneath the notice of their betters and could enjoy some simple freedoms. However, it they dared to leave those environs for the streets of their betters, they were regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility. Of course, that could never happen in today’s world — just ask young African Americans what happens if they wander into all white suburbs.
The Thing About Thugs is at times poignant, at times funny and at other times will leave you shaking your head at the things people used to believe and their attitudes towards their fellow humans. Khair has created a story that’s not only a pleasure to read but manages to contain social commentary without it turning into a polemic. That’s a delicate balancing act few authors have the ability to carry off, and it not only increases the pleasure one takes in the book but gives it a depth you don’t often find in popular fiction today.