Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

NarcopolisRating: 3.5
Narcopolis
A Novel by Jeet Thayil
2012 / 292 Pages

The Setup: A fantastical portrait of the beautiful and damned residents of an opium den and brothel in the underworld of Bombay.

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story…

Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. This is a book about drugs, sex, death, perversion, addiction, love, and god, and has more in common in its subject matter with the work of William S. Burroughs or Baudelaire than with the subcontinent’s familiar literary lights. Above all, it is a fantastical portrait of a beautiful and damned generation in a nation about to sell its soul. Written in Thayil’s poetic and affecting prose, Narcopolis charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis.

Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city’s underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of unforgettably degenerate and magnetic characters works and patronizes the venue, including Dimple, the eunuch who makes pipes in the den; Rumi, the salaryman and husband whose addiction is violence; Newton Xavier, the celebrated painter who both rejects and craves adulation; Mr. Lee, the Chinese refugee and businessman; and a cast of poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters.

Decades pass to reveal a changing Bombay, where opium has given way to heroin from Pakistan and the city’s underbelly has become ever rawer. Those in their circle still use sex for their primary release and recreation, but the violence of the city on the nod and its purveyors have moved from the fringes to the center of their lives. Yet Dimple, despite the bleakness of her surroundings, continues to search for beauty-at the movies, in pulp magazines, at church, and in a new burka-wearing identity.

After a long absence, the narrator returns to find a very different Bombay in 2004. Those he knew are almost all gone, but the heights of the passion he feels for them and for the city is revealed. (From the hardcover edition)


This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 07/30/2012

From the opening word “Bombay” to the period at the end of its first sentence a full seven pages later, it’s clear that poet Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis is anything but your standard piece of fiction. Set primarily in Bombay in the 1970s the novel bounces backwards and forwards through time as it attempts to document the lives of several drug addicts, drug pushers, and prostitutes. It’s not exactly the most happy, uplifting subject matter, but surprisingly it works, primarily because of Thayil’s choice to present his characters, warts and all, as highly evolved individuals who both own their choices and accept their circumstances. It’s this refreshing take on the darker sides of life, one where the individual takes responsibility for their actions instead of feigning ignorance, helplessness, or wallowing in their misery, combined with raw, sometimes horrific prose that helps mold Narcopolis into an impressive piece of fiction.

As the reader navigates the back alleyways of Thayil’s Bombay in a hallucinatory trance-like state they come to gain a better appreciation for what it means to inhabit this setting and in the end the message that subtly seeps across is that there is no honor among thieves and that drug addicts are only friendly with one another until the supply dwindles down to zero. Does that somehow make their relationships less valid? Would they have been happier without the chemicals? Would they have even bothered with one another at all if not for their dependencies? These are the what-ifs, and wisely Narcopolis avoids their questioning traps, choosing to focus on the realities of its subject’s lives instead of passing judgment on how they were lived.

The story’s narrator is Dom, an Indian student who got mixed up with drugs in New York only to get sent back to Bombay to fall into the same trap all over again:

“…I’m trying to remember how it was that I got into trouble in New York and they sent me back to Bombay to get straight, how I found Rashid’s, and how, one afternoon, I took a taxi through roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary in their bare feet and air of abandonment…”

Almost immediately he introduces Dimple, a hijra working the pipes at the most popular opium den in the region. For those not in the know, the hijra are eunuchs, some of which, like Dimple, were forced to undergo ritual castration at an early age which in turn changed the physiology of their bodies as they developed. Almost immediately the question surrounding his/her sexual identity is addressed by a questioning Dom:

“She said: woman and man are words other people use, not me. I’m not sure what I am. Some days I’m neither, or I’m nothing. On other days I feel I’m both. But men and women are so different, how can one person be both? Isn’t that what you’re thinking? Well, I’m both and I’ve learned some things, to my cost, the kind of thing you’re better off not knowing if you mean to live in the world. For example I know something about love and how lovers want to consume and be consumed and disappear into each other. I know how they yearn to make two equal one and I know it can never be.”

And then there are the disconcerting rumblings of the Pathar Maar to contend with:

“…the stone killer, who worked the city at night, whispers that leaked upward from the poor, how he patrolled the working-class suburbs of Sion and Koliwada and killed them while they slept, approached those who slept alone, crept up to them in the night and killed them but no one noticed because his victims were more than poor, they were invisible entities without names or papers or families, and he killed them carefully, a half dozen murdered men and women, pavement people of the north-central suburbs, where the streets are bordered by effluents and sludge and oily green shimmer, and all that year he was an underworld whisper, unknown to the city’s upper classes until he became a headline…”

While pages upon pages are devoted to exploring Dimple’s life in glorious detail, the Pathar Maar remains in the background, more of an ominous figure of dread that hangs over the proceedings, seemingly ready to pounce at various points in the story.

In the end Narcopolis proves to be a strange, twisted little tale that might be just a tad too weird for the masses to willingly ingest, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of a read as accessibility and importance don’t always go hand and hand.

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