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.

Jamrach’s Menagerie: Carol Birch

A large Bengal tiger escapes from its cage one morning in 19th century London and lands in front of young Jaffy Brown. The little boy, too young to know what a tiger is, simply cannot resist the temptation to touch the large cat’s soft nose. It is something akin to a miracle that Jaffy comes out of this encounter alive. Charles Jamrach, the owner of the menagerie (a collection of wild animals) to which the tiger belongs, saves Jaffy and also employs him as a yard boy. Thus Jaffy begins a happy life at Jamrach's Menagerie taking care of animals and haunting the dirty alleys of London with his friends Tim and Ishbel. Then comes the Lysander, a whaleship bound southwards on a quest to capture a dragon. Jaffy and Tim find the allure of the Lysander impossible to resist, and life which has been a slow placid sea till this time, now sails into unstable weathers, overturning the logic of things in its wake.

Carol Birch has borrowed from two historical incidents for her novel. Charles Jamrach was indeed an animal dealer and naturalist from London, and his menagerie did have a Bengal tiger which coughed out a boy from its jaws. The second incident is the sinking of the American whaleship Essex. A whaleship or a whaler was meant for capturing whales and processing them for extracting oil. Birch has given an additional objective of capturing a dragon (most likely a Komodo dragon) to her whaleship Lysander in the novel. Apart from Jamrach, all the other characters are fictional, deft creations of the author, where she paints them with vivid and endearing qualities.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is a very unusual novel in the way its narrative unfolds. Birch introduces her characters and their lives slowly without any indication of what is to come next. While we revel in the beautiful descriptions of 19th century London – its taverns and streets, shacks and houses, we have no inkling of the sea that is waiting for Jaffy. It is as if the author spends time on a port, building it beautifully for us and then just leaves it all behind, embarking a ship and moving on to a new port for a new start. This absence of a thrust, of an over arching goal that can push the narrative ahead can be a little disconcerting. But paradoxically, this is also the strength of the novel, for it closely resembles the way real life unfurls on us, showing only little of what is to come and blurring out the past with the passage of time.

Carol Birch’s prose is truly ravishing. She portrays all the locations in her novel very charmingly – be it the downtrodden parts of London, or the exotic islands of Atlantic. This novel is also very readable for the unusual settings on which it unfolds and the tinge of history that Birch so deftly incorporates into its flow. But the most remarkable quality about the novel is the magic embedded in its words which pulls us into Jaffy Brown’s extraordinary adventure, and makes us experience the same things that he does.

Man Booker Prize 2011 shortlist is out!

The penultimate step of this year’s Man Booker award cycle was completed today, when the shortlist of six books contending for the prize was announced. I am especially glad that Julian Barnes’ ‘The Sense of an Ending’ has made it into the final six. I had really liked this novel and was hoping it would make it to the shortlist. I am also thrilled that Carol Birch's 'Jamrach’s Menagerie' is also on the list. I started reading this novel a couple of days back and have enjoyed what I have read so far. Hope to post a review soon!

1. The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes [My review]
2. Jamrach's Menagerie - Carol Birch [My review]
3. The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
4. Half Blood Blues - Esi Edugyan
5. Pigeon English - Stephen Kelman
6. Snowdrops - A.D. Miller

Details of the news can be read at Man Booker’s site here.