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: firstname.lastname@example.org