By this point, there is nothing more familiar than the rewrite of a canonical work that promises to tell the "true" story, whether from the point of view of the original protagonist or, more commonly, from that of a marginal character. (Jane Eyre from the POV of Bertha Mason or Adele! Great Expectations from the POV of Magwitch! Oliver Twist from the POV of Fagin!) If, at first glance, Tabish Khair's The Thing about Thugs (2010) falls squarely into this tradition, it nevertheless calls many of its presuppositions into question--not least the possibility of "correcting" a fictional narrative, even with appropriately postmodern metafictional irony. Unlike most novels subjected to such revision, Khair's target is probably unfamiliar to most non-Victorianists: Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug (1839), purportedly a first-person account of the cult of Thuggee (and published at about the time the British were attempting to eradicate it) directly related to Meadows Taylor. Near the beginning of Confessions, the protagonist, Ameer Ali, tells Meadows Taylor that "I will conceal nothing," to be in turn reminded that the purpose of the narrative is "for the information of those in England" (I.4), and The Thing about Thugs is one long unraveling of both of these claims--that the "confessions" transparently narrate the true story of the cult's murderous representative, who willingly renders himself open to the ruling power's interrogations, and that the reader can be said to know anything once he or she has consumed the result. As one expects, Khair's Amir Ali has very different things to say about his experiences; as one perhaps does not expect, his story does not simply up-end Meadows Taylor's early-Victorian biases.
Meadows Taylor casts himself as the mere recorder of Ameer Ali's tale, purportedly neither editing nor rewriting his (rather long-winded) oral narrative; Khair, by contrast, decomposes this pretense of a unified speaker. Here, we have a modern (although not contemporary?), college-educated Indian who finds in his grandfather's library a set of "handwritten Persian notes" (loc. 32). These fragments, which our unnamed narrator admits that he could only read "with some difficulty and assistance" (loc. 32-61), form the substance of Amir Ali's own first-person narrative, written as a diary addressed to the English servant with whom he is in love, Jenny. In addition, our first-person narrator repeatedly slides into third-person omniscient narration as he reconstructs the story of a very different kind of "cult": the three men who turn to murder in order to increase the skull collections of a racist phrenologist, Lord Batterstone. These three narrative layers are then interwoven with yet a fourth, that of a non-existent book about Amir Ali, Notes on a Thug, which the narrator also claims to have discovered in his grandfather's library. (There are, in fact, multiple quotations from Confessions of a Thug in this novel, but Notes on a Thug is itself fiction.) And then there are the "contemporary" newspaper accounts of the murders by a sensationalist hack journalist, Oates, which evoke xenophobic anxieties about "the sort of crime one only associates with other, hotter climes" (loc. 1574)--an example of imperialist anxiety that conveniently ignores the very English nature of the crimes under discussion.
Each narrative layer is heavily mediated. The postcolonial narrator's first language is English, and he has no ready access to Amir Ali's voice; moreover, he is quite open about imagining the London slums in terms of "Dickens or Collins" (loc. 834) and similarly dreams up the Batterstone estate (perhaps somewhat anachronistically) from "Austen's world" (loc. 1650). It is no accident that the Black "king of beggars," Bubba Bookman, uses Shakespeare as another might the Bible: as the character's very name suggests, both he and the novel in general are made of books--the English canon, in particular--in a way that, in many respects, is typical of neo-Victorian fiction, which often goes heavy on the intertextuality. But the point here is sharper. There is no way to somehow return to Amir Ali's "truth" without the aftereffects of an English education getting in the way--cue Homi Bhabha. (Even when the narrator doesn't explicitly name his sources, the reader will pick up on them--by the end, we're pretty much in Conan Doyle territory, complete with a dunderheaded "Watson," although the Holmes equivalent is more an Asian female version of Baroness Orczy's Old Man in a Corner.) As the narrator admits, because he has no modern or Anglophone fictional equivalent for Amir Ali, only his "Farsi notes," he finds that "his own words both define Amir Ali and remove him from my grasp" (loc. 1184). The less mediation, the less accessible. Amir Ali, meanwhile, is an overtly unreliable narrator in his confessions, telling the Englishman the Orientalist tale he has paid to hear--but, as he comes to admit, "[s]tories, true or false, are difficult to escape from, jaanam" (loc. 1424). On the one hand, the stories he tells Meadows (the stand-in for Meadows Taylor) bamboozle the Englishman, and thus the reader might be cheerfully invited to read them as an example of resistance to colonial rule--were it not that Meadows later tells Amir that "sometimes I feel that what we are, what we appear to be, what we pretend to be and what we are said to be are four very different things" (loc. 2074), which suggests that Meadows is not quite so unsophisticated a consumer (or transcriber) of Amir's tale as we might suspect. On the other hand, far from liberating himself, Amir discovers that having given the Englishman the Other he desired, he becomes the thing he tells, treated as the obvious criminal by the police out to solve the murders. In a recent interview, Khair argues that "stories cannot just be celebrated, because they can be used in ways that are as destructive as Histories (with a capital H) have been," and this caution proves apposite to all the stories circulating through this novel.1 "I find myself unable to say who I really am," Amir writes in his diary, "if I am not also the thug brought into being by stories of my own making" (loc. 2343).
And is there a way out of that trap? At the beginning of the novel, we are told that the narrator finds a newspaper article reporting Lord Batterstone's death in a storm at sea; at the end, Amir Ali faces off with Lord Batterstone on board the ship. The reader, desiring poetic justice, is obviously tempted to draw conclusions. But the novel refuses them, at first glance dropping us back in classic neo-Victorian territory: the two endings of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Here, though, the challenge is different--the possibility of no definitive ending at all (and perhaps that's Villette, too!). "What happens when Amir Ali faces Lord Batterstone?" the narrator asks. "Can my language dare to choose between the options? Can my language claim to tell all of Amir Ali? Or should I let the squall blow in the blind whiteness of a sea fog behind which I can hide my choice of words, the fact that what I have chosen, what I can choose is never enough, never complete?" (loc. 3143) The promise of the rewrite--that it will play the game of telling us the truth about a fiction--here turns into something else entirely, the reminder that such stories can be both prisons and keys to freedom. The narrator cannot arrive "at" Amir Ali or the sum total of his choices when faced with the man he blames for his lover's death; language itself gets in the way. Yet inadequacy does not mean the same thing as total inability. In the end, if the narrator cannot promise to set Amir Ali entirely right, his tale still rebuts Lord Batterstone's imperial arrogance when he gazes at Amir Ali's face: "He sees a lascar. He sees no story worth reading" (loc. 3143).
1 Imtiaz Dharker, "Tabish Khair in Conversation," Wasafiri 29.1 (2014): 35.