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Book 137: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Book 137: Narcopolis.
Author: Jeet Thayil, 2012.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1970s-onwards. India. Drugs. Violence. GLBT themes.
Other Details: Trade paperback. 292 pages.

Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay. In Rashid's opium room the air is thick and potent. A beautiful young woman leans to hold a long-stemmed pipe over a flame, her hair falling across her dark eyes. Around her, men sprawl and mutter in the gloom, each one drifting with his own tide. Here, people say that you introduce only your worst enemy to opium. - summary from publisher's website.

Jeet Thayil, a celebrated Indian poet, opens his début novel with a Prologue consisting of a 6-page stream-of-consciousness sentence by Narcopolis' on-again, off-again narrator, Dom Ullis. In the late 1970s he is sent back to Bombay from New York in order to 'get straight'. However, he had quickly finds his way to Rashid's opium room where his life becomes entwined with those of its patrons and staff. Central to the story is Dimple, prostitute, eunuch and hijra, who works in the opium den as a pipe filler.

The novel is divided into four books. Book One: The Story of O begins with Dom's arrival in Bombay and his involvement with the opium dens of Bombay. Book Two: The Story of the Pipe moves to a universal narrator and focuses upon Mr. Lee, as he tells the story of his life in Mao's China and his exile in India to Dimple as he nears death. Book Three: The Intoxicated is set in the 80s and 90s as heroin has pushed out the mellower opium as the drug of choice for addicts resulting in a rawer edge to the Bombay underworld. Dom returns to the story at this point also as a heroin addict. It ends in 1993 with him leaving Bombay. Book Four: Some Uses of Reincarnation is set in 2004 as Dom returns to Bombay, now Mumbai, and seeks out his old haunts to discover what had happened to his associates from those earlier times.

The novel's structure is deliberately chaotic and non-linear. We learn only snippets of information about Dom, he remains elusive and very much the observer than a central character. Jeet refers to Dom as a cipher there to open the door to the story, set things in motion and wrap things up. Similarly time is quite vague as are events outside the closed world of the addicts.

Throughout there is a narcotic, dream-like quality to the narrative and it struck me early on that the author must have had first hand experience of opiates to write so knowingly of the experience. Therefore, it came as no surprise to learn of his personal history of addiction. Jeet Thayil also shares a great deal of background with Dom Ullis, suggesting an autobiographical element to the story,

This was the first of the short listed novels that I read as part of the 2012 Man Booker Shadow Reading Group. Despite that daunting opening sentence, it remained quite a readable novel. Part of that is due to its economical length, which is remarkable considering how much is contained within. However, there was little glamour in the story and those characters caught up in addiction find their lives dominated by it. So many aspects of the novel were quite bleak in that respect. Like many readers in our group I found Dimple the most sympathetic character as she sought beauty in her surroundings despite her circumstances in which she is virtually a slave within the brothel as well as to her all-consuming addiction.

I felt the retro psychedelic cover by Jimmy Zombie for the UK edition captured the novel perfectly.

South Asia Journal's Literary Review of 'Narcopolis' - a detailed examination of the novel and its themes.
Tags: contemporary, drugs, glbt, indian lit, literary, period fiction (20th century), religion
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