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cover of the thing about thugs by tabish khair

The Thing About Thugs

Tabish Khair teaches Literature at the University of Arhaus in Denmark, although he was born and raised in Gaya, in the North Indian state of Bihar. The story he tells in The Thing About Thugs begins in a small village not far from Gaya. It is there that Captain Meadows finds Amir Ali, the man who he wants to take to London for his research about the Thuggee Brotherhood – a cult of bandits in colonised India –, in order to prove that criminals can change. By doing so, Meadows wants to challenge current scientific trends in Phrenology that educated Londoners – most of all the influential Lord Batterstone – seem to be fixated on. A complex and frank story unfolds set in 1830s London, tracing a series of strange murders in which the victims are beheaded. Amir Ali becomes entangled in the happenings and explains his perspective of things.

In Khair’s re-enactment of colonial encounters, historical knowledge is called into question: although the white academics in London try to prove the criminal nature of the “other” through using their scientific methods to measure skull size, it is already obvious to readers early in the text that the crimes are committed to serve the British upper class and for precisely these scientific aims. Criminality is framed as being rooted in ‘rational’ society in order to expose a form of racism supported by pseudo-science.

The book reads like a good crime novel, but it is no Sherlock Homes story in which a clever and completely uninvolved detective solves the case. The role of the detective is played by an Indian Ayah, who like so many Indian women worked as a nanny for British families in London. She is a fascinating elderly woman who organises and gathers around her the poor, the beggars and the lower class, who are treated as lepers – many of whom are People of Colour. Under her leadership, these people help to solve the murders. If you are one of the people who contributed to the Netflix Series Bridgerton’s rise to becoming the most successful series on the platform so far, read this book to familiarise yourself with a less glossy work of fiction about the same time period, which simultaneously offers a more profound political potential.

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