FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Racism in London, Circa 1830

The cleverness of Tabish Khair’s novel, The Thing About Thugs, begins with the title.  Is it about how thugs do their work?  The characteristics of criminals?  Not really, though those assumptions, no doubt, are intended to be our first reaction.  Who doesn’t want to read a novel about criminals?  But given the setting and time frame of Khair’s story—London is the 1830s—and what “thing” and “thug” meant in those days, and the plot that slowly unfolds, “thing” means body or the decapitated head from a torso, and as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a being without life or consciousness…as distinguished from a person or living creature.”  That is, the thing or things are a body, or bodies, or parts thereof.  And thug, to my surprise, also defined by the OED: “one of an association of professional robbers and murders in India.”

Whew!  And now the story.

When Captain William T. Meadows discovers what he believes is a reformed thug in India, he decides—with honorable intentions—to take the man, Amir Ali, back to England with him as proof that not all natives are heathens, cannibals, or debased creatures, that some of them are refined and not very different from Englishmen.  That’s not a popular idea to assert, particularly in an era when phrenologists are working overtime to demonstrate that the skulls of criminals and Asians and Africans especially are proof positive of lesser beings.  All you need to do is look at the skulls of these benighted creatures and compare them with the skulls of Englishmen.

London itself is not a very pretty place in the 1830s. In addition to the English, it’s crowded with men and women from the colonies, living in squalor; with opium dens, prostitutes, and petty criminals; with many sections of the city unfit for human dwelling—even unsafe for entering.  There are rumors of a race of creatures known as moles, living in the sewers.  Into the midst of this environment Khair injects a reign of terror.  People are not only being murdered but decapitated.  So many bodies have
been discovered without their heads that fear runs wild.  As a newspaper article proclaims, “We have a monster loose in this fair city: a cannibal who consumes the head of his hapless victims.”

Racist talk is everywhere.  Another newspaper article refers to the ships that arrive at the London docks, laden with goods from the West Indies and India but, more worrisome, with “living goods,” the hundreds of men (and women in lesser numbers) who arrive on these ships every day, with no test if “these living goods are of sufficiently high quality or not, to certify that they are undamaged or not.”

“Every day we meet these goods on the streets of fair London: men and women from every corner of the Empire who are now in our midst and can be found associating with the worst of our own native crop of scoundrels.  From the far points of the globe they come, from places with wondrous riches and sights but also, as our
missionaries and colonists remind us, with strange rites and heathen customs, with extreme political views like anarchism, with devilish practices like cannibalism and suttee and thugee.  Why then do we throw up our hands in horror and surprise when another person—this time a beggar from the West Indies—is found murdered and decapitated in our streets?”

Sound familiar?  The journalists, the police, the elite go about their racist lives convinced that all vile acts are perpetrated only by foreigners. As readers of the novel, however, we know almost from page one the truth about the bodies missing their heads:  three Englishmen (two clearly of the lower classes but one staunchly middle class) who in the past robbed graves and sold the skulls—after cleaning them—to a titled gentleman, a leading member of The London Society of Phrenology.  And this man, known only as M’Lord, pays good prices for heads that are misshaped—or, not Caucasian.  Once the three suppliers realize that they can’t rely on the bodies in cemeteries, it isn’t long before any person with an unusually-shaped head had better watch out.

Remember Waiting for the Barbarians, where J.M. Coetzee makes it obvious that the real barbarians are the colonial officers at the outpost and not the natives whose lives they are supposedly improving?  That reversal is also central to Tabish Khair’s equally revealing novel, The Things about Thugs.  Moreover, the narration itself (with its multiple voices, its outer format of a mystery, and its differing perspectives because of the novel’s time frame) are equally compelling.  The novel was short listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2010 and, although it did not win that award, Tabish Khair himself needs to be celebrated as a writer on the move.

Tabish Khair: The Thing About Thugs

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pp., $24

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu  

 

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail