Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

07 Jan

My first book of 2013!

I’m sitting here trying to think about how this book makes me feel and my mind is blank…well sort of…numbed more like, in a fugue, which when I think about it is just the kind of emotion you would expect from a book thus titled!

Narcopolis_bookcoverLet’s begin at the beginning then…the title is apt – the book is about drugs (opium primarily) & addiction in Bombay…hence the name…the narcotic underbelly of the Metropolis. So far so good, not my usual kind of read, but that’s great too, coz this year I want to step out of my box and read new authors, explore new genres (although I have no clue where this one belongs). I start with the prologue and find myself reading a single sentence that’s 7 pages long! Uh huh…I don’t notice at first but when I do – I’m intrigued and fascinated coz who’d have thought?! The prose is exceptional, as is the author’s imaginations, but as I read further the absence of a traditional storyline begins to jar and the drug-induced stupors and dreams of various characters get confusing and consequently annoying. Perhaps this is my failure as a reader more than it is the author’s as a writer? Perhaps…

The character that truly interests me, the one I want to know more of is Dimple – and when Thayil is telling her story or when she’s telling her own is when I’m truly engaged with the narrative, no matter how weird or obscure it gets.  Her voice is the one I most ‘get’, her philosophy the one I think I can ‘relate’ to, as opposed to the other characters in the story that are suitably mysterious and enigmatic, but appear shallow and irritating to me. It’s almost as if Thayil set out to write her like so, imbued with compassion, understanding and a semblance of ‘normality’, although she’s anything but, in the ways of us ‘normals’; and in doing so used up all he had, so that the other characters were left to fend for themselves and so feel somewhat one-dimensional. Well, they do to me. Even Mr. Lee who is my second favourite character is tragic and his fate seems predestined and inevitable from the moment he appears. They all do actually – every character is on a singular, inescapable path of self-destruction – some by circumstance but ultimately all by choice. It can get depressing and it does, but there’s a definite narcotic, original quality to Thayil’s prose that is addictive and that kept me reading when I wanted to quit. Here’s what I mean, “Clothes are costumes or disguises. The image has nothing to do with the truth. And what is the truth? Whatever you want it to be. Men are women and women are men. Everybody is everything.” and this passage that left me rather breathless, “The men looked at her the way they did, their eyes lingering on the freshness of her…They saw health and good nature in her roundness, and something more, a calculation, a professional distance in the eyes, a kind of premeditated shine on her teeth and skin. And some heightened awareness, a ripple of interest skimmed above the heads of the strollers on the beach and returned to her from the men.”

This is not an easy read – Booker prize nominees seldom are! It requires infinite patience and a surrender to the author’s language and the world he creates – a world that is very unfamiliar to a forty-something ‘normal’ Mom like me. If you are into plot – this isn’t for you, coz as far as I can tell, there isn’t one. It’s more like a series of events over a course of time in the lives of the characters – who are the lower dregs of society – addicts, prostitutes, pimps and drug lords – the ‘poorest of the poor’ as our politicians are so fond of saying, the ‘invisibles’ – people who live& die, while most of us ‘normals’ remain happily oblivious or should I say uncaring of their struggle. The story meanders along like the people in it, from one event to another, so that you start off with Dimple in the ‘khana’ making an opium pipe for a customer and end up listening to a famous painter (and addict of course) recite a poem at an Art Gallery or reading about how a Chinese-Muslim eunuch sailed a fleet of ships and allegedly discovered America before Columbus did. The word is surreal – this book is nothing if not surreal and while that made it interesting, it also at times got on my nerves.

But one thing’s for sure – I’m not about to forget this one anytime soon. I think it’ll make an excellent Bookclub selection because it’s the kind of book that will evoke strong & varied reactions and opinions which always make for a good, if heated discussion! As for me, every time I’m in the vicinity of Grant Road (my aunt lives close by), I’ll remember Shuklaji Street and though I know I’ll never walk there (it’s unwalkable believe you me!), I’ll be wondering about Rumi, Bengali, Salim and thinking about Dimple making a ‘pyali’ at Rashid’s khana secretly teaching herself to read, and about how far removed their lives are from the safe haven that is mine, by just the accident of birth. And about how although we populate disparate universes, we still all want the same thing – a little bit of loving to make us feel like everything’s going to be alright. And how all of us in some measure are addicts to something or the other in Life – that little hook that allows us to hold on and keep going and imagine better times.

And so I have to conclude it’s a good book coz isn’t that what a good book’s supposed to do – make you think, make you react and yeah maybe mess with your head a little? 😉 This one did all three and although I’m not going to re-read it – I understand why it was nominated, but I also understand why it lost out! As a writer I think Thayil has definite talent – he has a way with words that’s compelling. If his next book has a good plot, I will certainly read it! Read it if you like descriptive prose but are not insistent on a solid plot, and are prepared to immerse yourself in the drug infused underbelly of Bombay – keep in mind, it’s not a happy nor healthy place to be, but dangerous and deadly and it will suck you in!

So, a challenging start to my 2013! I wonder if this is an omen of what’s to follow? 😛

Coming up next – A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, a favorite!

Happy Reading People 🙂


Posted by on January 7, 2013 in Booker Reviews


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2 responses to “Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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