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.”
Evocative, gritty, at times shocking and yet undeniably poetic at the same time Narcopolis is unlike any novel of India in existence that I am aware of and I have personally read a large number of what is available to readers (however limited by my need of English translations). It’s one of my favorite areas of literature and has produced some of my most beloved books of all time. Thrity Umrigar for example is one of my absolute most coveted authors and I wait patiently for each of her books and devour them again and again. Her writing is achingly honest and incontestable in it’s beauty…it’s truly magical and captures India in all it’s allure and undeniable anguish. For me there’s just something about the culture of India that keeps me coming back and perhaps one reason is that stark contrast of grace and tragedy that makes for such an adverse muse for so many talented writers. My travels there created an interest and hunger that I am still to this day trying to feed with my reading habits.
My love affair with India and Indian literature blossomed soon after my trip there in the summer of 2001. While most novels and authors of India at least touch on it’s poverty (it’s nearly impossibly not to since it’s such an open and heartbreaking part of everyday existence) and often troubling caste system very few focus almost exclusively on it’s true underbelly like this work. Drugs, prostitution, crime, lust and multiple religions- Thayil leaves very little untouched and delves deeper than any author I have ever encountered especially into the realm of drug use and addiction. The novel itself is enveloped in a smoky haze that creates an almost dream-like quality to the writing at times. Racing thoughts, dreams of the extraordinarily bizarre and the symptoms of addiction-all make themselves ever present in the narrative.
Spanning three decades of life in the city of Bombay (now modern day Mumbai) the novel focuses on the city’s darker side exploring various characters and their lives and experiences on the city streets and within the “wrong” side of Indian culture. One of Thayil’s main characters is that of the eunuch prostitute Dimple, a perfect example of an individual of both tragic and beautiful elements which the author so well explores in his writing. Bringing together the shadowy history of one of India’s largest cities with the intensely personal lives of a number of unique and unconventional characters Narcopolis is a book that will entrance some while repelling others. In most cases I think those readers drawn in by it’s description will be those that will enjoy it and become lost within it’s pages. It’s not for all but it will find a appreciative audience within which it will be applauded for it’s stark honesty and unerring ability to take a world of pain and tragedy and still show pure beauty no matter how fleeting and tiny- a talent only achievable by truly gifted writers.
Interested readers can follow the Blog Tour for this distinctive work here.