Express In Conversation
AMONG THE THUGS
TABISH KHAIR with Seb Doubinsky
Tabish Khair worked as a reporter for Indian papers in Bihar and Delhi before moving to Copenhagen, where he painted houses, delivered newspapers, and washed dishes. He eventually completed a Ph.D. in Denmark and went on to become one of the most iconoclastic and prolific Indian English-language writers of his generation. His work rigorously engages with difficult aesthetic and political questions while also relentlessly questioning the dogmas of colonial history. He has won the prestigious All India Poetry Prize, and his novels have been shortlisted for various awards, including the Encore Award (U.K.), the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (India), and the Man Asian Booker. His novel The Thing about Thugs, which was published to wide acclaim in India last year, has recently been published in the U.S.A. by Houghton Mifflin. He is interviewed here by the French writer and critic, Sébastien Doubinsky, who also resides in Denmark. Doubinsky’s novel, Goodbye, Babylon (Black Coffee Press, 2012), was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Sébastien Doubinsky (Rail): Your novel The Thing about Thugs has just come out in the U.S.A. It deals with the themes of prejudice, pseudo-science, and imperialism in 19th-century England. Can it be considered a reflection on today’s problems?
Tabish Khair: You are right, some things change and stay the same too. Take prejudice or xenophobia: its target often changes, but the ways in which it operates remain so similar. What was once said about Jews is then said about Irish Catholics and Gypsies, which is then said about ‘Blacks’ which is then said about ‘Muslims,’ and so on (or back and forth); sometimes even the same adjectives, like ‘crafty,’ ‘untrustworthy,’ ‘wily,’ ‘devilish,’ ‘disgusting,’ associations with the hyper-animal, etc. Pseudo-science too—The Thing about Thugs uses the 19th-century fad of phrenology, or skull-reading. It reminds me of journalistic versions of genetics and evolutionary studies today. Phrenology, like genetics today, was rooted in the genuine scientific endeavor to measure and codify, but it was more often used to pronounce wildly on all kinds of matters. Pronouncements that had less to do with science and more with one’s own unexamined fears and privileges. Bumps on the skull were read to suggest criminality or depravity in a manner that is similar to how today we talk of a chromosome for this or that, while actually, as all serious scientists know, genetics is a far more complex, multidimensional, and subtle field. As is “evolution.” Strangely, it is only when we become aware of the continuities in these matters that we can talk of genuine change. That is one of the reasons why The Thing about Thugs is narrated from an Indian present and into a British past, so to say. It is a story of a group of people, including Indian ayahs, lascars, and ex-slaves from the Caribbean, who get embroiled in a series of murders in early Victorian London. As for imperialism, today or in the past, well, what can I say? Need I say anything?
Rail: Like I said, The Thing about Thugs takes mainly place in 19th-century England and you manage to create an incredibly vivid impression of the time and place. Did you research much before starting on your novel?
Khair: As you know, Seb, and one can see it in your fiction too, there is always the need for research, but one has to use it differently from the earnest way in which academics use research. One has to use it creatively: to explore the possibilities and silences; to respect but not get cowed down by facts and figures. If the novel has a kind of historical setting, the need for research increases. But with that, the need to be selective also increases. One cannot and should not use all or even most of the historical facts that one gleans: one has to be choosy in the cause of the larger artistic enterprise, without of course blatantly disregarding facts and history. I think too many historical novels suffer from the fact that their authors feel the need to re-use all the fruits of their hard research. So, yes, I did do substantial research—into colonial thought, Victorian working classes, mid-19th-century London and India, etc.—before writing The Thing about Thugs. But I left much of the research out of the novel too. For instance, once I used about three weeks finding out how street lamps were lit in London, and finally I decided not to use the information, except in a single line, because I did not consider it important enough for the narrative of the novel. It helped me to know, but I did not have to impose the research on my readers.
Rail: Misconceptions and prejudices seem to occupy a central position in your works. You attacked the myth of India’s independence in your novel Filming, regional and European/Asian clichés in The Bus Stopped, imperialism and science in The Thing about Thugs, and preconceptions about fundamentalism and democracy in your latest novel, How To Fight Islamist Terror From The Missionary Position. Do you consider yourself a political writer, or are politics just a background part of your fiction?
Khair: I am not a political writer in the sense of writing protest literature or any kind of programmatic text. I think one can only talk of good writing and bad writing, but I also believe that good writing is always political in the larger sense. After all, to be political in the larger sense is to be aware of how human beings respond to each other and socio-political organisms, like states or established religion, in their daily lives, and how can one write good literature without this awareness? Politics in that sense is part of the way we deal with each other and all that exists around us, including nature. Such supposedly apolitical novels as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Mark Twain’s or Stendhal’s novels are deeply political in that sense, and perhaps more so than some obviously “political” literature. After all, The Bus Stopped is basically about a journey in a remote Indian state in the 1990s, Filming is mostly about the Bombay film industry in the 1930s−’40s, and The Thing about Thugs is a kind of crime novel set in Victorian London. None of them directly addresses any issue of current politics. How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position is the only novel that does so, as it takes a snide, irreverent look at Islamism and the so-called war against terror. But, as you note, all four seem to have political relevance to you, despite the fact that three of them are not even set in contemporary times. I consider it a real compliment when one writes a novel that is not narrowly political but still addresses issues which hold a political resonance for one’s readers. It means one is engaging with life and language at the necessary levels. After all, language itself—being what we mostly use to communicate and clash—is always political in some ways, even aesthetic language.
Rail: How does it feel to have two novels out at the same time?
Khair: I guess people like us are always scattered in so many countries. By this I do not mean to beat the tired old drum of cosmopolitan hybridity, globalization, etc. I was born and educated in a small town of probably India’s most backward state. I was almost 30 when I came to the West. I suspect that I am one of only two internationally visible Indian English writers who were born and mostly educated in a small Indian town; all the others (and some of them are excellent) come from big cities in Asia or the West. So one part of me enjoys the fact that I have two novels coming out in two different countries simultaneously, despite being a writer from “nowhere.” The other part feels a bit sad. I know that I would probably not get published in either metropolitan India or cosmopolitan U.S.A. if I had stayed on in my small town. That is sad.
Rail: Yes, we are indeed both children of a self-imposed diaspora. But, although it is somewhat sad that we are far away from our “roots,” don’t you think it’s also an incredible chance for us, to have a double, or even a triple, outlook on culture, literature, and everything around us?
Khair: I agree. One of the very few lines by Salman Rushdie that I quote without reservations is about how trees have roots while human beings have legs. It is true: mobility is a condition of human existence. The movements of our limbs, eyes, and lips, the movement of peoples, the movement of ideas, stories, art, craft, science. I don’t even think this is a matter of “modernity”; in fact, there are versions of modernity which are very insular, single track, unforgiving, and ungenerous. The thing is that as human beings we need to be able to see not just our own horizons, but (as a German philosopher puts it) also learn to see other people’s horizons to the extent possible. And if you move, well, then your horizon changes a bit too. It helps.
Rail: I want to go back to your last two novels. The Thing about Thugs has been referred to as a “sly take on the post-colonial novel,” while How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position has been presented as combining “generic elements from the crime thriller, the immigrant novel, the campus novel, and the young adult romance.” How do you feel about definitions? I am sure you resent them as much as I do, but how would you define those novels yourself?
Khair: As a creative writer, one wages a war against fixed definitions, knowing very well that the relationship between language and reality is always fraught. We understand reality, and hence define it, through language, and yet language can never exhaust reality (which is not unrelated to fantasy); reality always escapes the net of language. That is why words and images and sentences need to be honed and hewed again and again. I guess it is that part of us which resents fixed and easy definitions. But of course definitions sell, and these two definitions do cover important aspects of the two novels. Not all aspects of the novels, but significant ones. I can live with them. Though left to myself, I would leave definitions to scientists, publicists, and scholars, and simply read on.