(It’s been a long, long time since I reviewed a book. So please forgive my floundering.)
It took me two readings of Narcopolis to feel able enough to write a review. I took exactly an entire year between my two readings, and as the book turns one, I feel it’s time.
The first time I read the book, I read it in a hurry. For two reasons. One, because I had been looking forward to it for a while, ever since I knew Jeet Thayil had written his first book. It isn’t the biggest of secrets that I am huge fan of his poetry; it feels really terrible to use the word “fan” for something as exquisite as Thayil’s poetry but there’s no other word, really. I’ve looked hard and read repeatedly to find something I don’t like about the poetry and come up with nothing. Except perhaps, there isn’t enough of it. So when the book came out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
The second reason, and perhaps more relevant to you as a reader, is because unless you get past the first thirty or so pages, this book is a struggle. You are sorely tempted to put it down and pick it up, oh, maybe next year and read other things. Of this I was terrified.
In just about every review, the seven-page long, single-sentence prologue seemed to be talked about a lot. And I can see why. To begin with, you barely notice it is one long sentence till you are about half way. When it does dawn on you, you are also thinking exactly where is this going. My advice to you: persevere. Unlike the first book of Narcopolis (the story is divided into four books), the prologue is a compelling, textured read. The introductions are many, the voice and tone are set here – in the tradition of a drug novel, a lucidity that you move in and out of throughout the book: parts of it so real they make you hold your breath just a bit, and parts of it so fantastical, that it feels like you’ve just switched books without realising. I don’t want to compare it to being high, but if you’ve gotten nice and high, and tripped peacefully, you’ll recognise that quality here.
This is an intimidating book to review. Partly because of the style itself, an ambitious story telling that walks the fine line between trying too hard and intricate originality. And partly because the story arcs and characters are so intimately intertwined that unless you stick objectively to your own response to the book, you run the risk of picking up every skein that runs through it and discussing it, thereby ruining the book for the reader entirely. The reviews I’ve read all said the book was about sex and drugs and Bombay and poverty. To me, those things in the book are incidental. Big but still incidental. All the elements are there for it to be a Bombay in the 70s/80s book but it isn’t what forms the spine of the book. This book could be set anywhere where the big things happen, where cities don’t sleep and people die and live every day. There are specific events that might tie it down to Bombay like the riots, and indeed, it captures succinctly Bombay’s past of nearly 30 years. The epicentre of book, where the stories radiate from, is an opium den in the not-so-posh part of South Bombay. But all of this could be anywhere, making it not just about Bombay or drugs or any of that, even though it traces the dying trails of opium addiction as it gives way to more violent, synthetic drugs that kills the dubious tradition of opium dens. But maybe because I like people so much, that I am genuinely interested in them, I find this book mostly about human beings and their severe and inescapable humanness. Their lives and, more importantly, their deaths,
There’s Dom, the part-narrator, there’s Dimple a hijra, her employer Rashid the owner of an opium khana: to me, the lives of these three occupy the largest chunks of the book. Dimple is a multi-layered, subtly astounding compulsive character, filled with an openness, and sadness that seem irreconcilable. As with all good books, and their lasting characters, I found Dimple stayed with me for a couple of days after I finished reading the book, and through her, the others. Her and Mr Lee’s Chinese opium pipes.
Mr Lee is another constellation of pain and fear, who adopts Dimple in an odd sort of way. Or perhaps it is Dimple who adopts the dying old man who leaves those bamboo pipes to her. Here, Thayil gives you a sketch done in swift strokes of a brutal, revisionist China. This part of the book is particularly intricate because of the intimate telling of the way Lee’s life unfolds. There are details of his traumatic childhood that feature an obsessive mother who eventually locks herself up and an equally compulsive addict of a novelist father. In between is an obviously ignored and confused Lee, a quality that barely changes as he leaves China and settles down in Bombay, even though he hates it. Thayil deftly builds an entire novel that the father Lee writes, in his own novel, within a matter of pages, and you wonder why. In your seeking of that answer, you realise Narcopolis is like an intricate patchwork of entire worlds and the 292 pages it is written in is just an illusionist’s trick because there’s a lot more there than that many pages can hold.
(Spoiler in the paragraph ahead.)
Book three is the most compelling of all the books. Thayil pulls out all stops on this one and lets his characters riotously loose. On a spectrum of human ugliness, the book’s characters fill all the bands. Rumi, another patron of Rashid’s chandu khana like Dom, is angry, arrogant, and filled with such great self loathing that he has to go beyond violence to himself and perpetrate it on other unsuspecting folk. Conflicted, zoned out Rashid who considers Dimple his property and resistingly watches his business slip away as time goes by, Salim, a minor but interesting interlude, who chops off his employer’s penis when he’s being raped (there’s no other word for it) by him, and dies a violent death later. Dimple herself, according to me, becomes denser as the book progresses, obviously acquiring layers but as readers, we aren’t allowed more than a glimpse. At times, she’s shown as mouthy, other times non-judgemental as Rumi tells her things about his life, later in the book she’s shown sad, quiet and sullen. The one thing you do know about her is that she’s obsessed with reading, educating herself. It left me wanting to know more about Dimple, who was given away at age seven and castrated too about then.
Do I like the book? Yes, very much. Did it blow my mind? Close, it had my slowly-sinking mind in its slowly-tightening grip once I began reading it and much after I was done. What do I like best about the book? That it was deeply poetic and stark and loaded all at once. That it was unexpectedly funny in so many places, in a way that leaves you unsure if you should have laughed or if you misread it. That the subtexts are many – books, lyrics, histories. That it left me wanting more. What did I not like about the book? That it sagged in places and took a while to build steam. That there a couple of typos in the edition that I have (hard cover Faber and Faber). That I am thrown by details like Guru Dutt being referred to as Bengali (it may also be interpreted that he became an icon for Bengalis), little inaccuracies like ‘katha’ for ‘khata’ (to eat). These are little things, sure, and I am probably nitpicking, but I trip over them.