Murderous 'Thugs' From India To London

Guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with Tabish Khair about The Thing About Thugs, his new novel about the myths of murderous Indian cult of "thugees."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Here is a mystery novel called "The Thing about Thugs." The thugs in the title are murderous members of the ancient culture of Thugee in India, where the author, Tabish Khair, was born. Thugs would befriend travelers, kill and rob them. In this novel, mostly set in the 19th century, Mr. Khair follows a young Indian man, Amir Ali, who makes himself interesting to an English officer by creating a story that he escaped the cult of Thugee. After being taken to London and shown off in society as a reformed thug, Amir Ali is blamed for a series of gruesome beheadings and a strange Indian woman, Qui Hy, investigates the crimes. This is a very complex and literary thriller with a number of narrators relating versions of this story, aspects of it. There are curious characters and dark settings, clearly inspired by Charles Dickens. We asked Tabish Khair to read from his book.

TABISH KHAIR: (Reading) Night descends on London once again. Descends? No. It rises slowly in all the nooks and crannies of the steaming metropolis. First, it crawls like a spider between the cobblestones, then it spills like ink on the ground between the buildings, from the walls and the bridges. It grows out of the corners. It builds a net of shadow in the parks and between the lampposts. It turns the water of the Thames blacker. It darkens in the facades of the houses, mean or majestic. It is only when the land has been conquered that night rises up into the sky, the cloudy smoky London sky, and it muffles out the last traces of day.

WERTHEIMER: That is very scary sounding.

(LAUGHTER)

KHAIR: I'm glad you found it scary.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that is sort of interesting and puzzling about your book is that when other narrators pick up the story, they don't pick up the story. They tell some part of the story, perhaps. It's a little discontinuous in places, and that's one of the things that makes it seem so mysterious.

KHAIR: There were a number of reasons why I wanted narrators not to just tell the story but in some ways sometimes take the story further, sometimes actually contradict some of what has been told, and some time bounce off into one of their related area. And I wanted to use that technique. I wanted to use different narrative voices to open up these gaps and enable the reader to explore with their own imagination what might or might not have happened.

WERTHEIMER: Now, we don't want to talk too much about the plot, but in this book you build in the 19th century fascination with doing science and you include a serial killer who beheads his victims, and this sort of leads to a kind of discussion of otherness in your book. There's a moment in the book when a journalist, who's writing about this beheader, as they call him, the journalist says that this is a crime no Christian could have expected or imagined. So, this is a theme you like to talk about - the otherness, the things that are very different.

KHAIR: Sure. No matter what culture one belongs to, there's always the tendency to assume that one knows everything about one's own culture. And one can judge people who do not belong to that culture. And that tendency is, obviously, dangerous. That's what I mean by the notion of otherness, in the sense that you can construct the other as a threat. I wanted to indicate that the assumption that we are always good and the other is always knowable in his evilness is a very easy assumption that we make in all cultures, and is at the same time a very problematic assumption.

WERTHEIMER: You deal, as Dickens does, with cruelty and high society and respectability in low society. This is a very rich - and I would have to say somewhat smelly - mixture. Who is your favorite character in the book?

KHAIR: I would say that in some ways what I tried to do is create characters who are not one-sided. 'Cause there is no character who is purely evil or purely good. Even the ones who seem to be very evil like May and Lott Betterstone(ph), they have certain what tend to call redeeming features, in the sense that you understand why they commit their evil acts. On the other hand, the so-called good characters, like Amira Lee(ph) or Qui Hy, they also have certain, obviously, dark sides to them. In that sense, what makes me happy is they able it to create these characters - characters who are not just black and white.

WERTHEIMER: One of the characters you just mentioned - Qui Hy is a woman and she is, I guess, she is your detective in this thriller. The thing that I found so amazing about her was the way she solves crimes. I mean, she solves crimes by never leaving her room.

KHAIR: Qui Hy in Hindustani means someone else or someone. And it was a term used by Anglo-Indians in the 19th century to describe those Anglo-Indians who had been around for a long time, in the sense that they had been in India for so long that they had become someone. They knew what was happening. I imagine that she had adopted this name, Qui Hy, in the sense that she has become someone in underworld of London. She had the right contacts with all the wrong kinds of people. And she uses those contacts, basically, to solve crimes. So, that's why she doesn't really leave her room and her fireplace. She sits there and a bit like a famous character from Charles Dickens. She sits there not knitting but sewing pockets onto shirts for contractors who are becoming more and more common in the 19th century.

WERTHEIMER: Tabish Kahir's book is called "The Thing about Thugs." Thank you very much for talking to us.

KHAIR: Thank you, Linda.

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