Saturday, August 14, 2010

Not Much Of A Stranglehold

This appeared in today's The Hindustan Times


Thug. In mid-19th century Britain, that word was enough to send delicious shivers down the spine of the novel-reading public, conjuring up tales of Oriental deceivers with knotted handkerchiefs waylaying innocent passersby and then performing rites to the Goddess Kali. Much of this was because of the popularity of Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor, dealing with the revelations of one Amir Ali, master strangler. This tale, clearly inspired by William Sleeman’s own account of stamping out the cult, was allegedly one of Queen Victoria’s favourite novels.

Nowadays, it’s understood that Sleeman’s account was either exaggerated or simply a case of reading too much into the stories behind the mass graves he unearthed. In his new novel, The Thing About Thugs, Tabish Khair is keen to turn the tables on such Occidental fancies. This is a postcolonial fable of another young man named Amir Ali who flees to Victorian London in 1839 – the year of Queen Victoria’s coronation -- and is thought of by his benefactor, Captain William Meadowes, as a thug with a nefarious past. Meadowes, in fact, is writing a book, modeled on Sleeman’s account, at the heart of which is this supposed thug’s confession.

As is made clear soon enough in a letter to his beloved, Amir Ali’s murderous background is entirely a fabrication. We begin to learn of his actual past while also being plunged into skullduggery in the dark heart of the British Empire involving a supply of skulls to a phrenologist anxious to prove his theories right.

The narrator – who may or may not be Khair himself – conjures up this tale from the library of a whitewashed house in present-day Bihar, surrounded by the work of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, among others. Khair is adept in showing us how the narrator dreams of this work through a clever juxtaposing of the books he’s read and the people he’s met. The atmosphere of foggy London town is also ably evoked, although it must be said that a surfeit of adjectives are pressed into service to perform this task.

From Amir’s adored Jenny, a charwoman, to high-born lords to vicious workingmen, The Thing About Thugs flits in and out of characters’ minds and motivations with ease. It’s also because of this, however, that the centre of gravity slips away from the novel on more than one occasion. Many fragments remain parts not cohering into a whole.

Khair also flings his net too wide in his attempt to write back to the centre, with allusions to Jane Austen as well as a misguided investigator whose sidekick, inevitably, goes by the name of Watson. It is this, as well as only a slight contemporary resonance, that prevents The Thing About Thugs from establishing a firm stranglehold on the reader.

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