The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair is a fascinating book, almost magical in its ability to transport you back into the London of 1840.
Amir Ali sets off, at age 15, from his village Phansa in Bihar to work as an apprentice in Patna, where he runs into Captain William Meadows and is soon accompanying him to England.
Amir confesses to the captain that he had been a Thug, that band of murderers from North India, who join up with unsuspecting travellers under some pretext or the other, and after gaining their confidence, seek for an opportune moment along the way to kill them and make away with their belongings. He divulges the modus operandi of this strange cult of killers comprising of both Hindus and Muslims, who have a startlingly secular devotion to Allah as well as to Goddess Bhavani (spelt Bhowanee in this book). An intrigued Meadows begins studying these murderous marauders.
But the supercilious attitude that the English had towards those not of their complexion, and the disdain they felt and expressed against their faiths is revealed in Meadow’s remarks to Amir Ali: I despair of making you understand, for you who grew up among men not afraid of killing other men, nay, having practised that crime as other people practise an art, you have learned from the selfsame men to frighten yourself with painted dolls and empty Arabic words.
Reason is not a tyrannical God like Allah, or a bloodthirsty demon like Bhowanee. For some came and told me of the murders they had committed or participated in, and I asked them about the cult of the Thugee and they feigned ignorance or gave differing explanations, and hence I knew they were dissembling, for Reason told me that in the land of Hindoostan all is built on the scaffold of superstitious faith.
Is Amir Ali a Thugee? Or is he not, as he claims in his fervent writings to the housemaid in Meadow’s employ? And what are some Englishmen doing collecting skulls for the study of phrenology?
The Thing About Thugs
By Tabish Khair