NARCOPOLIS: A World Reviewed
Narcopolis, the novel by Jeet Thayil Reviewed by Poonam Srivastava
Jeet Thayil’s book, Narcopolis, is not an easy book to write about. It is not always an easy book to read. I will not say I was enchanted by the first chapter. I was put off slightly. The writing is magnificent and poetic, but the tone of self absorption and narcissism was more than I could handle. It is a book that centers around drug use and thus, I could see the verity of a smoky mirror gazing set up. Still it disturbed me a lot more than the now famous, or infamous, fact of the nine page sentenced beginning. (Really, as a poet I see no problem in reading a nine page sentence as you know we all make our own punctuation anyway — how many people pause the exact same way for a comma, or a question mark?)
Despite the true genius of poetic literary wordsterism, there is an element to Narcopolis that completely disturbed and devastated me. It was not the poverty of Shuklaji Street, where the woman drinks a tea (pinkie extended and in rags) bought and paid by the king of junkies and then pees five feet away on a pile of garbage, no shame on her face. (Was it Dimple, the eunuch or Rashid, owner of the opium den, who bought the tea? It is hard to remember.) It’s not the cast of junkies and petty criminals and the one murderous bastard that disturbed me through the book. The bloody violence was, well, bloody violence. The disturbing element of the book permeated the settings and the characters and persisted the long of its 304 pages, and resisted any name. I persisted in my reading, drawn in tight by the authenticity of Thayil’s writing.
Despite the clarity, the poetry, the mastery of bringing place and time, hours and minutes, and people to life, Narcopolis’s disturbance left me ambivalent, and thus very much an addict to this book. Knowing that there was something “wrong” here in picking up the book again and still driven to it. Even as I fell in love with the spot on evocations of jalebi (my father’s favorite dessert) frying yellow and smothered in sweet stickiness (Thayil says he refuses to write about mangoes. Which is fine because he writes very well about chai and jalebi); the unhurried munching of the three drugged out men who celebrate their beating senseless of a fourth; the slow moving and opium infused friendships of the characters that frequented Rashid’s opium Den on Shuklaji Street; the bare boned fucking and exchange of drugs and sex for money and services; the harried and frenzied deals of heroin–next generation drug after opium; the colors, the smells, the keep-on-keeping-on that happened in that dark, desperate, yet completely composed and believable world, I remained drugged and despaired on a very deep level. This is something no book has accomplished in quite some time. Narcopolis is in me now like a place I’ve walked in, lived in. Only now do I understand it’s disturbance. The what and the how of my disturbance is the power of this book.
It is the what that happens in Narcopolis that is so vulnerably human. Dimple and Rashid and even Khalid, as well as paathar maar, or pocket maar, they are all caught up in the bind of being at once subject and actor. Holding the driving wheels of their lives while the roads get rearranged under them. It is not just a story of drugs and sex and violence and love. It is a story of the human condition, the searching for peace and for joy and for ownership of our time here on this planet in our world whether it be Narcopolis, Bombay of the ‘8Os pre-terrorism and pre-hindu/muslim clashes; or the bombay of the glitzy first decade of this century where Shuklaji Street is a run on sentence of cookie cutter steel counters, cafes, and danceterias.
That same story fits the Lower East Side of N.Y.C., Berlin, and Scranton, PA. It is the question of faith, and of freedom. There are the multiple identities, the multiple languages and faiths, and the fluidity such as when hindu Dimple wears the purdah or seeks shelter in a church; or when the drug dealing bandit worries about his asthmatic kidnapped son with a single word, “please”. It is the drunk unhappy businessman who rapes a housewife/whore and then robs and beats her before returning home to his haughty higher class, wealthier in-laws.
The disturbance is in the how it all happens that is so completely tragic. Forces lurk. Close at home and in foreign places other newly created often invisible needs push Dimple and Rashid and the others. As they struggle with their own dreams and demons, real life negotiations are playing with them as if they are so many dolls in a child’s toy box. So, the lovely opium pipes are exchanged for the ugly wrinkled aluminum foils with initial resistance and final submission. (One wonders how the by then Mr. Lee, who brought such ancient beauty of opium pipes to Bombay a full generation before Rashid, would have fared.) The long drawn out conversations dealing with literature, love and life that accompany the opium rituals of the smokers are replaced by a furtive and immediate descent into silence that comes on the heroin user immediately. “The junkie is free within the addiction.” And the mother is free within the child rearing; the worker free with the job and the disabled free within the scope of the doctor’s visits and limits of mobility; the old with in the reduced range of motion; the baby within the allowances of the parents. We are free within our “chosen” prisons.
Narcopolis a book that is also easy to read. The writing is true, non sentimental and heartfelt. The characters are well developed. The story has many narrators, most often it is told by Dimple the prostitute, the object of love, the sole woman character of substance — who was born a man. It is written in multiplicity. Unlike many books now, it is a book not of ideas, but of experience; not of problems but of struggle. I don’t want to limit this book to a “drug” book, as much as Thayil doesn’t want to limit it to a South Asian book. It’s a book about our times. It’s a book about life. It’s a novel in the sense of the word. Please read this book.