The Thing About Thugs : Tabish Khair

What is a story? Does the veracity of a story determine its value, or is it the authenticity of the narrator that decides its usefulness? Or perhaps the truth of the story or its narrator is but immaterial, and its worth in the eyes of the listener is all that matters. How difficult it is to hold a story in words! Tabish Khair's wonderful novel, ‘The thing about thugs’ is immersed in such capricious stories. The thug (member of a band of professional assassins) Amir Ali begins weaving a yarn of stories and what emerges is a slippery tale that threatens to alter his own identity, and the tranquility of the world around him.

The setting of this novel is nineteenth century London, a place thrumming with the tensions between the natives from the different lands that the British colonize, and the natives of the great city itself. Times are changing, the perception that humans hold about their origin are changing, and this new consciousness brings with it an unease, kinks into the fiber of the social life. Lord Batterstone and Captain Meadows, two men engaged in the study of Phrenology – a science pertaining to study of sculls – hold very different opinions on the subject. At the heart of their fight is Amir Ali a thug brought in from India by Captain Meadows for recording the story of his past life as a thug. Amir Ali in the course of relating his story, falls in love, makes loyal friends and becomes a different person altogether.

Tabish Khair has used multiple narrators in this fast paced novel. What I really found impressive was the way Khair builds up each character - each person a superposition of multiple personalities. None of the main characters have lived a simple straightforward life, each lives with an incongruous past, hazy memories of what one had been, and a certain amount of unreality about their present identities. This quality also extends to the cities in question. London which is introduced as a civilized, orderly city eventually shows its face of disheveled, barbaric cruelty. Another city in the novel, Patna (city in northern India), of whose glorious past Amir Ali proudly talks about, also keeps changing its identity, wearing multiple garbs - sometimes of glowing nostalgia and other times of squalor.

'The thing about thugs' is a fascinating novel which ponders upon the identities of humans and places. Here truth and unreality morph and mutate, and we relinquish their quest as we begin to believe Amir Ali’s words of wisdom,
"...truth and credibility might well be beyond reconciliation in our world"

This book can bought from Flipkart in India.

13 comments:

Mahesh said...

Hello Nivedita,

Thanks a lot for this interesting review! I'm going to add this book in my list of books to read this month.

Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks for stopping by Mahesh. I hope you enjoy the novel :)

Toyin O. said...

This sounds like a great book, thanks for sharing.

Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks Toyin!

Andrew Blackman said...

Another 19th century London book! It sounds quite different from Jamrach's Menagerie though. I haven't heard of this one, and it doesn't seem to be available in the UK, at least not on Amazon. There's a 2010 edition with no copies available, and a 2012 edition set to come out from a different publisher. Strange! I'll look out for it anyway, thanks for the review!

Nivedita Barve said...

Hi Andrew,
It is indeed weird that the book is not on amazon, especially since it was shortlisted for Man Asian Literary Prize for 2010 and is now longlisted for the DSC Literary Prize.
If you really want to read it, I can courier my copy to you. Send me your postal address on my e-mail (barve dot nivedita at gmail dot com) in that case.

litlove said...

What a great review - the book sounds fascinating and you make me want to pick it up right away! I will certainly look out for it now,

Nivedita Barve said...

Thanks Litlove. This one unites some very interesting themes. I hope you enjoy it too!

pandharyavarachekale said...

Hi Nivedita,

I liked your blog! I rarely enjoy reading book reviews, but I liked yours. Keep writing! :)

Nivedita Barve said...

Dear Archana,
Thanks for your kind encouragement :) I hope you find some interesting books here. Happy reading!

Andrew Blackman said...

Hi Nivedita
Just checked back and saw your generous offer! Don't worry, though - I already managed to find a second-hand copy on another site and ordered it. I really appreciate the offer, though :-)

Nivedita Barve said...

Hi Andrew,
Glad you could find a copy. Will love to read your take on it :)

Aarti said...

Wow, this sounds really interesting. A great title and a great setting- thanks for reviewing a book I've never heard of before.