The thing about Thugs is that we can’t quite credit the definition anymore. Stranglers, yes; organised, yes; ritualistic, perhaps; but Thuggee wasn’t the national institution the British made it out to be. William Henry Sleeman ‘suppressed thuggee’ in the 1830s by rounding up 1,500 Thugs on the basis of ‘information received’. More famously, Philip Meadows Taylor told all England about it in his Confessions of a Thug (1839). Young Queen Victoria lapped it up. While not preparing them for 1857, it made the British grimly certain of what to expect. Every 19th century writer worth his salt took a shot at Thuggee. Dickens died without deciding if John Jasper had a taint of Thuggee in Edwin Drood. John Masters’s The Deceivers (1952) trailed the spoor of James Sleeman’s account of the life and times of his granddad William. The empire was writing back by the 1990s when Parama Roy’s cogent essay questioned the creation of Thuggee as a construct. Unfortunately, Roy’s arguments were based not on a direct engagement with archived records, but on the fictional idea of Thuggee.
Syed Amir Ali ‘Feringhea’—the confessing Thug of Meadows Taylor—has long awaited a fictional reprieve, and here it comes, in Tabish Khair’s The Thing About Thugs. Khair approaches these shark-infested waters with extreme caution. In the much-mythologised family mansion in soporific Phansa, specifically the library where nobody reads anymore, our narrator chances on a bundle of Persian letters written by one Amir Ali, who says: ‘Because I was not... I am not what the Kaptaan wants me to be—I am not Amir Ali, the Thug.’ So, what is Amir Ali’s true story?
With this build-up, alas, there is very little to tell. There is Victorian East End with its correct minutae of sleaze and a fair amount of dated slang. The props all work, but the cast refuses to perform. Yes, it’s fashionably post-post-modern to be ambivalent, but the narrator as a spectator of himself as spectator can get precious. The studied negligence of anaesthetised prose leaves it bereft of imagination. ‘Then in less than five minutes...Shields and Jack throttle the woman and saw off her head.’ This book is replete with beheadings, all as blase and bloodless as this one. The only hormonal twinge the narrator concedes is his ‘overdetermined’ lust for the maid. But we’ve read that before, in Khair’s first novel The Bus Stopped.
Amir Ali, one of fiction’s great riddles, deserves an ending less banal than: ‘The sea is choppy; the wind is howling; the heavens press down on the earth, heavy with clouds. Lord Batterstone...looks back at Amir Ali. He sees a lascar. He sees no story worth reading.’