As Mark Staniforth, fellow Shadow Juror for the Man Asian Literary Prize, wittily remarked in his review, it’s a fair guess that Jeet Thayil’s ‘Narcopolis’ is unlikely to nudge its way onto Oprah’s summer reading list any time soon. This tale from the underbelly of 1970s Bombay is about as squalid as it can get. But – longlisted it for the 2012 Booker, and now shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize – it is strangely compelling, luring the reader in, mimicking the way opium seduces the book’s characters into a world from which they can never escape.
‘These are night time-tales that vanish in sunlight like vampire dust’ says the elusive narrator in the Prologue, and it is true: characters weave their way in and out of the novel in swirls that transfix the reader and then disappear. Their lives are loosely connected to each other, but only by the narrator’s nostalgia for the opium room on Shuklaji Street. The book begins as he returns to it after an absence, introducing the reader to Dimple, named not because she has one, but after a famous Indian film star. The irony is painful. Dimple works part-time at Rashid’s brothel and increasingly at the opium room, starting under the tutelage of Mr Lee, a refugee from the excesses of Communist China where he was once a powerful man. His story, like Dimple’s, seems utterly authentic, though his easy escape surprised me. There is obviously more to know about the porous borders of Asia!
With so much in the news about the sexual abuse of women in India, Dimple’s story has added resonance. Thayil returns to this character again and again, revealing more about her life each time. These characters are not victims in the usual sense: they make choices and they have autonomy in some areas. But the story of how Dimple came to have ambiguous sexuality is not for the faint-hearted. The way people are used in this novel, as if they have no intrinsic value except for the purposes of their abuser, is a reminder that for the poor in places like this, the choice they have is to accept how things are. Dimple watches a film and wonders at the way rich people can be unhappy about such trivial things …
Life is cheap in Dimple’s world, and violence is breathtakingly casual. When the authorities make an appearance it’s for Customs and Excise to close one drug venue in favour of another or to charge a rape victim with a robbery he didn’t commit, and to beat him till he confesses not only to the murder he did commit, but also to a contract killing. His death in custody is of no interest to anyone. The death of a ‘housewife hooker’ is of no interest to anyone either. (Have things changed in modern India? Not for women, evidently. Just last night on the news, I heard appalling statistics about how few cases of rape in India result in convictions. No wonder it’s under-reported. How does this happen in a country that had a female prime minister as far back as 1966?)
Things get nastier. The decades pass with an escalation of religious hatreds and the 1993 bombings. Women’s dress becomes an issue (and Thayil’s attempt to render the burka sexy cuts no ice with me). Opium begins to be replaced by other drugs such as cocaine, and it becomes big business. And for the characters, the side-effects of long-term addiction become more unpleasant so there are attempts to wean themselves off it. The mockery of the ideology of detox centres like ‘Safer’ doesn’t hide the misery of withdrawal whether ‘cold turkey’ or with compensatory medication. Like other aspects of this book, it’s confronting.
Narcopolis is not a book to ‘enjoy’ but the characters are engaging and the world Thayil creates is fascinating. I liked the intimate style of writing, but more than anything, I liked reading outside the dominant culture, and seeing things from an entirely different point of view.
Dimple was a story addict, the kind of reader – if she had been able to read – who hated to get to the end of the book. So I held Professor Pande’s book open on my chest and I continued.
“Jesus was crucified in a very cruel way, but he died smilingly. His happy face had a great effect on his disciples and so did the miracles he performed. In fact, he was a consummate performer: no matter what the circumstances he managed several performances a week. He once fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish only.”
Dimple said, ‘Five loaves of bread and two fish, which means with half a dozen fish he could have fed all the poor of Bombay, no, no, of course not, just the poor of Shuklaji Street. Even so, he should have been born in India.’ (p. 15)
I read this book as a member of the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize jury. To read my reviews of other Man Asian Literary Prize nominations see here and to see reviews by other jurors, please visit the SMALP Jury Notes at Matt Todd’s A Novel Approach.
Author: Jeet Thayil
Publisher: Faber and Faber 2012
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the Book Depository $16.26