Sept 10, 2010
THE THING ABOUT THUGS By Tabish Khair, Fourth Estate, Rs 399
A fairly simplistic interpretation of the concept of the ‘heathen thug’ prevalent in mid-19th century England was adequately employed to satisfy the British thirst for romantic notions with a difference. This ‘romance’ lay in embellished descriptions of the cult of the Thuggee, a movement associated with dangerous conmen from the mystical Orient, armed with rumaals, who would lie in wait to befriend unsuspecting travellers, only to loot and murder them at the opportune moment before disappearing into the night. Such, the West believed, was the mystique of the devotees of the goddess, Kali.
The deceptive casualness in the title of Tabish Khair’s book, The Thing About Thugs, is followed through into the opening pages of the narrative by the relaxed yet strangely unfathomable tone of the narrator, who sits in his late grandfather’s whitewashed ancestral house in Phansa, Bihar, and reads. He reads a myriad manuscripts and books, spanning lifetimes and languages; he reads Captain William T. Meadows’s Notes on a Thug: Character and Circumstances, chronicling the life of the thug, Amir Ali, as it was related to the captain; he reads Farsi manuscripts, written in Amir Ali’s own hand, letters addressed to Ali’s jaanam, Jenny, refuting the facts about his brutal past as recorded in the captain’s work, and telling a very different story. The narrator reads, while his reality intersects with theirs, across centuries and lands.
The casting of India and its image into a few particular moulds and then popularizing these often-misleading notions had been practices of the imperial powers in colonial and post-colonial India. Khair appears to be attempting to address and do away with some part of the problematic West European ways of viewing Eastern and African cultural mores in a one-dimensional and stereotypical manner. The character of Amir Ali begins, in the captain’s chronicles, by saying all the right self-deprecating things and behaving in a servile manner befitting a mere colonial subject. But the character of the eminent phrenologist, Lord Batterstone, is made to project an (initial) gravitas that is but natural to the superior ruling power. As the narrative progresses, however, Khair deftly makes incisions into the tough fabric of popular belief and reveals the multi-faceted, composite actuality that the Thuggee movement was. Amir Ali intrigues the reader, while Lord Batterstone remains an unevolved entity — very visible, despite the masks he wears, but nevertheless an unfortunate stock character. Khair’s skill lies in the way he projects these parallel character narratives and records their collisions without making them look like mere games of one-upmanship.
A sense of enormity of the happenings in the novel belies the casual title and the seemingly light tone that the narrator adopts. It is as though the seriousness that lies beneath is straining to break through and take over — and yet, without ever managing to do that, it makes its presence felt among the wide range of realities, recollections and personalities that dot the landscape of the book — sometimes lingering, often disappearing, only to reappear sometime later, or never again. Khair adeptly juxtaposes Meadows’s chronicles of Amir Ali’s life with Ali’s letters to his beloved, Jenny — a strategy that works perfectly to set questioning minds to investigate the contrast between the two. A perceptible rawness, however, does creep into the narrative while one is almost galloping through it, for the author struggles a little to make a number of dissimilar stories and voices converge into an interconnected entity (not a homogeneous one, for such a work cannot be homogeneous). Be it the dreadful tasks carried out by the resurrectionists, John May and Shields, the curiously empty life of Lady Batterstone or the twisted yet tragic life led by the old woman in the opium den, Khair attempts to afford importance to all that he creates, but is unable to do them equal justice.
Lord Batterstone’s ambitious plan to travel down the Congo river into the heart of Africa in search of uniquely shaped, non-white human skulls to add to his phrenological (and sometimes just plain creepy) collection and to prove to the world the infallibility of his research is somewhat reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The latter work attempted to explore the concept, image and reality of imperialism in a detailed manner. The deep-rooted belief in the ‘darkness’ that was Africa lies at the heart of Conrad’s novella, dealt with strategically in a way that is sympathetic to West European imperial constructs. It is, however, the darkness of Kurtz’s fear of obliteration and his existential crises that remained with me as the true ‘darkness’ in the book. Like Kurtz, Lord Batterstone too can be situated in the context of a larger imperialistic convention that sought both to marginalize and condescend to ‘inferior’ cultures, the difference being that Batterstone is single-minded in his murderous intent, instead of also patronizingly undertaking the uplift of other races.
Batterstone, Daniel Oates, and to a certain degree Major Grayper, are archetypally imperialistic in their varying degrees of malevolence. Amir Ali, too, does not deviate considerably from the notion of a wronged hero. He demonstrates the traits that one would associate with a man in his misunderstood position — he is resilient, strong, flawed and very human. He learnt to believe that he “had to be like the grass”, for unlike the upright trees that storms can uproot, grass is always “wavy and green, unaffected by the storm”. Khair does not have to create radical misfits or extraordinary characters to illustrate his point. Characters within recognizable conventions work quite well for him.
For example, the tender moments that Ali shares with Jenny, mainly spoken of in his letters to her, are clichéd. Yet they are an ‘unconventional’ pair, given the time and space in which their relationship blossomed. But there is an underlying melancholy and a strange longing in the records of their time together — a sense that, irrespective of how close the two are, an endless distance separates them.
Possible misinterpretation by the British and skepticism about the existence (Wikipedia)
In her book The Strangled Traveler: Colonial Imaginings and the Thugs of India (2002), Martine van Woerkens suggests that evidence for the existence of a Thuggee cult in the 19th century was in part the product of "colonial imaginings" — British fear of the little-known interior of India and limited understanding of the religious and social practices of its inhabitants. For a comparison, see Juggernaut and the Black Hole of Calcutta.
- "In recent years, the revisionist view that thuggee was a British invention, a means to tighten their hold in the country, has been given credence in India, France and the US, but this well-researched book objectively questions that assertion."
In his book, Dash rejects scepticism about the existence of a secret network of groups with a modus operandi that was different from highwaymen, such as dacoits. To prove his point Dash refers to the excavated corpses in graves, of which the hidden locations were revealed to Sleeman's team by Thug informants. In addition, Dash treats the extensive and thorough documentation that Sleeman made. Dash rejects the colonial emphasis on the religious motivation for robbing, but instead asserts that monetary gain was the main motivation for Thuggee and that men sometimes became Thugs due to extreme poverty. He further asserts that the Thugs were highly superstitious and that they worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali, but that their faith was not very different from their contemporary non-Thugs. He admits, though, that the Thugs had certain group-specific superstitions and rituals.