Confessions of a Thug by Philip Meadows Taylor.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars.
I DIDN’T CHOOSE THE THUG BOOK, THE THUG BOOK CHOSE ME.
(Oh come on, you knew it was coming.)
No, this isn’t any sort of Glock-heavy tell-all. It’s a bit older than that, though it is one of the earliest places where the term is used. So that Tupac tatt kinda began here. Also, it was a blockbuster piece of ethnographic fiction – the main character is a composite of several killers – and it boasted Queen Victoria as a fan. So now you’ve got the image of QV eagerly devouring strangling lit to get out of your brain.
I’ve seen some other reviews of this work become hung up on the fact that the lexicon is faintly biblical. If you’re going to read this thing, it’s probably worth remembering that it was published in 1839, and so it’s not going to have the same electric zap as an Ellroy. Discounting the clunkiness of some of the phraseology, the work has a fair amount of forward momentum. It presents as a record of tales told the nameless ‘sahib’ – I assume we’re meant to believe it’s Taylor – by Ameer Ali, an imprisoned adherent of the Thuggee cult. So you know – a murderer who specialises in strangulation, and worships Kali, while still having time for the odd spot of sugar.
Unusually for the time, Ali is given freedom of narrative. The story is his as much as it can be – remembering that the book is apparently a distillation of several actual criminals into one superstrangler by a colonist – and there’s very few interjections from the listening boss-man. Ali’s journey from crime-spared-child into a leader of murderous men is detailed, and while there’s plenty of murder, it’s not the only thing that’s discussed in depth. There’s a lot of info on strangulation, but there’s more on fencing, on grave choosing, and on the management of men.
Ali’s a jack of all trades, too. Rather than pursing murder as his sole gig, there’s times where he’s a trader, or a military leader, or a man working with the government in a position of trust. It’s a more fulsome portrait than I’d expected, frankly, and it was a surprise to read how much emphasis was placed on the workings of the groups of men he was amongst: the interplay of different religions, different castes, and different histories. The way bravery and moustaches were approved, and the way bhung was looked down upon. In this social fossicking, Taylor creates a world that’s vital, and intriguing – amidst all the gruesome neck snapping, that is.
The failing in the book, for me, is that once Justice Comes Into View, things start to bog down. You know how the people in the TV version of The Walking Dead keep falling into the same traps? Traps you’d think survivors of a zombie apocalypse would know to avoid, if only because they’d been snared in them before? Same thing. It feels like a set-up, which is where the illusion starts to flicker. The hand of the creator (literary, not divine) is too obvious at these times, as it is with a particular OHO NOW FATE HAS FUCKED WITH YOU! narrative element that comes home to roost later in the work.
It’s disappointing, as up to that point, Ali seems a lot smarter than that. I mean, I guess it’s bad to sympathise with a murderer for most of a book… but you’ll find it’s unavoidable. That’s perhaps why the moments of dodgy construction stick out so much.
I’ve read that the word ‘thug’ can be translated roughly as a descriptor of roguish endeavours: rather than a religion of Kali worshippers – think Mola Ram in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, frankly – there’s a leaning towards it being a descriptor of swindlers and highwaymen, instead of landing overly on the death-by-strangulation aspect. There’s a school of thought that believes that the English inflated the danger of such a cult to enable the enactment of stricter controls on the populous. But then, there’s also documented confessions and hundreds of unearthed bodies to support the idea that they did exist. But there’s enough doubt to cloud my enjoyment of the work: it’s hard to relax entirely into something when you’re uncertain whether it’s propaganda or not.
So, I enjoyed the book, but with qualifications. It’s billed as a sterling example of Empire writing, which I imagine is true, but even the application of that name makes the content automatically suspect. It’s hard to view the work – even though it was written by a sympathetic author (Taylor wrote a lot about India, and his archeological work there was lauded) – as anything other than The Raj Writes A Book. Yes, Ameer Ali has a lot of agency in the work, and yes, there’s little consideration given to explaining the Thugs’ vocabulary beyond an extensive guide to phrases in the back of the book – but it’s difficult to disassociate the story at hand with the fact that it was written by someone in a position of comparative power over a land that was not his own.
It’s worth a read, for sure – it’s a piece of Victorian writing that snaps more than you’d expect, and is a lot more gruesome than you’d expect – but I feel I need to counterbalance it with some more considered history of the supposed cult. Is it a definitive history? No, but I don’t think it tries to be. It’s lurid and aims to shock the (inherently English?) reader – and despite its age, does so admirably.