Saturday, 13 October 2012
Book Review: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil, the author of Narcopolis, needs no introduction to Indian readers. One of India's best contemporary poets, the son of reputed senior journalist TJS George, Thayil spent his childhood in Hong Kong, New York and Mumbai. Thayil's late wife Shakti Bhatt, a very well-known and popular figure in literary circles, used to run Bracket Books. Narcopolis is Thayil's first novel.
Narcopolis is set in Mumbai, fondly referred to as “Bombay” by Thayil, who I gather had a drug addiction during his youth, a part of which was spent in Mumbai. Narcopolis is mainly about drugs and drug addiction and Thayil has his readers hooked from Page 1, though the story doesn’t move fast. Rather, the reader is in a state of bliss, perfectly happy with the languid pace of narration, presumably not very different from the experience of a drug addict. We meet Dimple, the pretty hijra who works as a prostitute and later prepares pipes for patrons in Rashid’s opium den. Dimple seems to be contended, despite her aches and pains, thanks to the excellent opium she has access to at her work place. Rashid, the owner of the popular and internationally acclaimed opium den, seems to be a decent chap. All seems to be well with the world.
Then things start deteriorating in the opium den and in the rest of Mumbai. Heroin makes an appearance and all the opium users switch to it. They can’t really say No, since heroin gives them a much bigger kick. It also ruins them – their health and their wallets. Rashid knows that he is a fool to give in to heroin, but is unable to resist either. The introduction of heroin coincides with sudden change in Mumbai’s landscape. Terrorism and fanaticism make and appearance. Riots takes place for vague reasons. Mind you, all of this happens as Thayil’s characters and readers are in a drug-induced trance, so one takes one a vague notice, till things get really tough towards the end.
Thayil’s Narcopolis is very realistic and gives the reader a feel of the Mumbai of the 1980s. Much of it is set in the areas in and around Grant Road, adjoining Kamatipura, places which are undergoing rapid change even as I write. The use of Hindi words such as randi and garad and casual mention of sodomy, both varieties – with and without consent - only add to the authenticity. Just as Narcopolis is realistic, it is also unrealistic and flips over details which certain discerning readers (like me) would expect to find. For example, when Mr. Lee, one of the most interesting characters populating this novel, escapes from China to India, he merely requisitions a jeep and drives over to India. At one point, we are told that Dimple is from the north-east, though I don’t think there are many Hijras in Mumbai who are from the North East. Dimple doesn’t seem to have money worries at all.
The narrator Dom Ullis, a Syrian Christian Nasrani from God Own’s Country, makes a limited appearance at the beginning of the novel and later towards the end and doesn’t trouble the readers much, except for an obligatory reference to the Syrian Christian community’s love for the caste system.
To sum up, Narcopolis is a very good read and in my view, it is a deserving candidate for the Booker. Since I have read only one other book amongst the six shortlisted, I can’t say how good a chance it has for the prize which is to be announced on 16 October 2012.