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The Thing about Thugs by Tabish Khair

The Thing about Thugs (2004)

by Tabish Khair

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10710169,116 (3.35)5



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Tabish Khair's The Thing About Thugs is a fast-moving tale set predominantly in Victorian England. The novel's protaganist is a young Indian man, Amir Ali, who spins tales of his involvement with India's notorious Thugee cult to a British scientist, Captain Meadows, who is recovering from illness in Amir's village. Fascinated by both Amir's tale and his claim to now being reformed, Captain Meadows invites Amir back to England so he can write about his experiences. While in England, Amir becomes engaged not only in Captain Meadows' world, but also those of the English working class and various other colonials who find themselves in England. When a wave of grisly beheadings grips London, suspicion quickly falls on Amir, whose supposed involvement with the Thugee cult has citizens - who don't believe he is reformed - assuming he is capable of committing horrific crimes. Can Amir and his friends convince London that, contrary to popular belief, he is not responsible for the murders?

I have mixed feelings about this novel. While I found both the story and the characters fascinating, the narrative technique employed by Khair to tell this tale did not work for me and had a significant impact on my rating. Told from several different perspectives, including that of a man in the modern day, the constant shifts in perspective interrupted the story's flow and were often times, especially early in the novel, confusing. Nevertheless, Khair has created some memorable characters in this novel and, through his often eloquent prose, he vividly brings to life some of the seedier aspects of Victorian London. In addition, I thoroughly enjoyed how Khair wove the 'science' of phrenology, which was quite popular during the Victorian era, into the narrative. Despite my difficulty with the style in which this novel is written, it will not deter me from reading other novels by this author.

Note: I received a copy of The Thing About Thugs from the publisher as part of the novel's TLC book tour. This in no way influenced my views on the novel. ( )
  Melissa_J | Jan 16, 2016 |
Thank you Goodreads First Reads for the advanced readers copy of The Thing about Thugs.

Thugs was a great read. Sure, there isn't much of a mystery; we know who is doing what and why. The fascinating aspect of Thugs is the life of the street riffraff and immigrants in London, the mix of cultures and languages in the bustling city, and the historical backdrop. I felt like I was reading a subdued Rushdie, except the events were taking place in London, though part of the narration originates in India. The letters written to the lover are perhaps a bit cheesy, though this is intended and well-placed. The font of these letters did not bother me; I found them to be perfectly legible.

Khair is a good writer. Language flows, and each narrator seems to have a distinct voice, and often even a distinct accent. The plot was well done, as well. Unlike some other readers, I did not have trouble following the different lines of narration. Khair does a good job with the narrative voices to lead the reader through the stories, past and present.

I don't recommend the book to people who expect a murder mystery. Historical fiction fans should enjoy it. ( )
  bluepigeon | Dec 15, 2013 |
If you are an Anglophile, this book will set you straight about the former British Empire. History is written by the conquerors, so it was a pleasure to encounter a retelling in the alternative voice of the "conquered."

With understated irony (although also a tiny bit of overwrought prose) the writer paints a vivid picture of the squalor of Victorian London. Inequity and iniquity are everywhere--it made me wonder what was worse, the colonies or the capital at that point in time.

Favorite line:
"There is something about barmen that makes you want to open up to them, thinks John May. Perhaps is it because they are good at echoing your words, sometimes even your thoughts. It is a little like going through a tunnel: one feels tempted to shout into it and hear one's voice echoing, changing shape and sound, and still remaining identifiable. John May resists the temptation.
"He knows his soul is oppressed by the need to shout into some tunnel. But he also knows that there are always people listening at the other end of a tunnel." ( )
  librarianarpita | Jun 18, 2013 |
A young man sits in an old house in an ancient town in Phansa, India. It is his grandfather's house and, though it is no longer anyone's home, it is alive with memories and stories. In one of his grandfather's books, he finds sheets of letters, written over a hundred years earlier, by a man named Amir Ali. The young man, our principal narrator, tells us what Amir Ali wrote, and tries to fill in the gaps to provide the rest of the story.

Amir Ali is a young man in India when he meets Captain William Meadows, an enthusiast of phrenology (the notion that skull shapes and measurements reveal intelligence and even character). Because of certain events affecting his family, Amir Ali spins a yarn for Meadows, telling Meadows that Amir was a member of the notorious Thuggee Cult, a band of cutthroat murderers, but has now seen the light of the reason and morality brought by the British to the lowly Indians. Meadows is persuaded to take Amir back to London with him, where Meadows exhibits Amir to various scientific society meetings and takes down Amir's long Thug story for the book Meadows is writing, titled Notes on a Thug.* Meadows is anxious to use Amir as a weapon in his war against his chief phrenological rival, Lord Batterstone, whose ideas are far more extreme.

Amir is a keen observer of Victorian London, with its teeming streets, strict class differentiation and racist attitudes toward the many people of color coming to London from Britain's far-flung empire. Amir expresses his thoughts in the letters that the young man finds in Phansa. The letters--never sent, since they are written in Farsi--are to Jenny, the servant girl Amir has fallen love with. Amir's Thug story is presented in the book's excerpts from Meadows's Notes on a Thug. We also read a narrative about a trio of grave-robbing criminals and other members of London's underclass of opium addicts, street performers, prostitutes, and even sewer dwellers called Mole People. On top of those multiple story threads, with their different styles, the book includes excerpts from newspaper articles written by a hack journalist named Oates. It was a little confusing at times, as I moved from one storyline to another but, after awhile, I got into the rhythm and style and went along for the ride. And what a ride it was.

After a deliberate start, the pace accelerates when a series of gruesome killings--complete with beheadings--rocks the city. The sensationalist press proclaims that no Christian could be responsible for the killings; they must be attributed to the riff-raff slipping into the country from Hindoostan and other parts of the empire, with their "strange rites and heathen customs," "extreme political views" and "devilish practices." Oates theorizes in his newspaper that the killer must be an "Oriental cannibal," and Amir Ali soon finds himself the key suspect in the murders. Of course, his story about being a Thug is the prime piece of evidence against him. It seems all of London is out for blood, and the police are happy to assume, with no investigation, that he must be the killer. Amir and his underclass friends must crack the case on their own, before Amir finds himself dangling at the end of a rope or torn to shreds by a mob.

Tabish Khair's book is a kaleidoscope of styles: florid Victorian novel, musty pseudoscientific article, tabloid-style sensationalism, historical mystery and police procedural. But that's just part of the story. Khair uses all of these styles to point a finger at the British imperialist attitudes of the Victorian era. Complaining of the burdens of empire, one clubman says, "We ship them civilization and they ship us problems." Enthusiasts like Batterstone and Meadows use junk science like phrenology to justify notions of their racial and class superiority, which underpin the era's colonialism. These attitudes are so pervasive and unexamined throughout British society that Meadows's cook proclaims that the members of the working class, of which she is obviously a member, are all untrustworthy.

Khair's lesson about colonialism could have been dull and didactic but, instead, he has fun with it. Amir Ali's story about his supposed life as a Thug and his recognition of the superior wisdom, morals and reason of the English are comically over the top but, of course, it's taken as gospel by Meadows and his self-satisfied ilk. The grave-robbing criminals bamboozle their betters, and Amir and his friends run rings around the professionals put in charge of the serial killer/beheader case.

Amir is a thoughtful and appealing hero, and the depiction of his love story with Jenny and friendship with his motley crew of compatriots is heartfelt and memorable.

Congratulations to Tabish Khair on this genre-bending, colorful novel.

* Presumably, Captain Meadows and his book--as well as Amir Ali in his fictional Thug persona--are based on Philip Meadows Taylor's 1839 novel, Confessions of a Thug, about a character called Ameer Ali. The novel was a sensation in England when published, and popularized the modern use of the word "thug."

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book. ( )
  MaineColonial | Apr 7, 2013 |
Originally posted here. Also, I'm giving away my ARC - enter by the 13th.

The Thing About Thugs is not precisely my ordinary reading material. Howe cover, I have always been morbidly fascinated by books about serial killers, although I'm not sure that designation is quite right for what happens here. At any rate, I was also drawn in by the racial tensions and the unique sound to the story. Sadly, The Thing About Thugs did not turn out to be precisely my kind of read.

What was really cool about this book was all that I learned about the study of phrenology, or trying to read the human skull, something I knew little about previously. I think I'd heard of it, but that's about it. The study itself, while creepy, is also scientifically and psychologically interesting. While the debates about phrenology might tire some readers, I found those sections to be most illuminating.

So, too, did I enjoy the parts about the murders. More than that, I enjoyed the whole way the scientific process sometimes worked back then, with some men robbing graveyards for the bodies to be used in experiments. What grisly work! People would go to such lengths to study such things. It amazes me that there was a whole underworld industry for that.

What lost me more than anything else as a reader, though, was the structure Khair used to tell this story. While Khair's writing itself is good and not without appeal and skill, I didn't care much for the organization or narration style used. I found that I was constantly withdrawn from the story and that the focus was often on the least interesting (to me) aspects.

Khair told the story through multiple media: newspaper articles, letters written by Amir Ali to his love (though never sent), transcripts of Amir Ali's story to William T. Meadows, first person narration (though we don't know whose for a long time), and even (I think) some omniscient third-person narration. This was just too much. I feel like it would have been a stronger novel with more of the third-person narration. The first person narration was jarring, especially following third person sections. I had so much trouble trying to figure out what was going on and I don't think that added to the story in any way.

Amir Ali's story is an interesting one, and he is a compelling character. However, I didn't feel like I particularly came to know him, probably because all I really learned about him was from his letters. This means I was only TOLD who he was, rather than getting to see him interact with anyone too much.

Obviously, this book has been lauded, what with being shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Though it was not my cup of cocoa, I think other readers will likely enjoy this Victorian mystery, in which prejudices are generally wrong. ( )
  A_Reader_of_Fictions | Apr 1, 2013 |
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"In a small Bihari village, Captain William T. Meadows finds just the man to further his phrenological research back home: Amir Ali, confessed member of the infamous Thugee cult. With tales of a murderous youth redeemed, Ali gains passage to England, his villainously shaped skull there to be studied. Only Ali knows just how embroidered his story is, so when a killer begins depriving London's underclass of their heads, suspicion naturally falls on the "thug." With help from fellow immigrants led by a shrewd Punjabi woman, Ali journeys deep into a hostile city in an attempt to save himself and end the gruesome murders. Ranging from skull-lined mansions to underground tunnels concealing a ghostly people, The Thing about Thugs is a feat of imagination to rival Wilkie Collins or Michael Chabon. Short-listed for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, this Victorian role reversal is a sly take on the post-colonial novel and marks the arrival of a compelling Indian novelist to North America. "--… (more)

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