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Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis

Thayil has said that this is not your typical Bombay novel (note that in his remarks and in this book, he tends to use the old style Bombay rather than the new style Mumbai). Firstly, I would have thought your typical Bombay novel would have been written in Marathi. Focusing on novels written in English, it is not like, for example, these novels, as they generally do not concern themselves with the Bombay drug culture. However, it is similar in that, like several of the novels on the list, it is written by and reads as though it is written by an Indian who has spent much time out of India. To be fair, Thayil did qualify his comments by saying It did not feature the great figures of Independence or Colonial history, or even the bit players and, in that, he is certainly correct. In other words, it isn’t Rushdie, Desai or Chandra. As mentioned and as the title makes clear, it’s a drugs novel. This is hardly a new literary theme, from de Quincey, Poe, Baudelaire and Cocteau to Burroughs (four of whom get a mention in this novel) and, focusing only on Scotland, from Trocchi to Welsh, literature has had its fair share of junkies. I am not sure if he has been influenced by the Scots but the influence of Burroughs is clear.

The narrator is Dom Ullis, presumably based on Thayil himself. He has various nicknames, including Dum (from the song Dum Marom Dum) and also Damned Ullis. However, the narrator is a relatively low-key character, observing more than participating. We learn that he has been deported back to India from the United States for drug offences. The first thing he does on arriving back in Bombay is to go the seedy part of town. The taxi driver thinks that he is heading for the brothels but he is actually going to Rashid’s drug den. There he meets Rashid, the owner, Bengali (the man’s nickname) who manages the place and, in particular, Dimple. He states that Dimple is a hijra but we actually learn that he is a eunuch, having had all his genitals removed at the age of nine. Not surprisingly, he has some ambiguous views about the differences between men and women. I am using the male pronoun but Thayil uses the female pronoun for him. We learn much about Dimple’s difficult life.

There is a little bit of a conventional plot. As a background there is a continued reference to the Patthar Maar (Stoneman) killings as well as to Hindu-Muslim conflicts. We follow the stories of Rashid, Bengali, Dimple and the other denizens of the drug den, how they cope with their lives and their drugs, how they gravitate from opium to garad (a form of low-grade heroin) and how they detox and/or die. Their lives are not glamorous but they rationalise them to themselves and each other. We also get to meet a host of colourful characters. Newton Pinter Xavier is the bad boy of Indian art. He has painted erotic and religious paintings, such as one in which there is a gory Christ figure wrapped in thorns the size of railroad sleepers. He is in Bombay to give a talk. However, at the talk he is too drunk to even stand up. However, he does read from a long poem he has written told in rhyming quatrains and set in a future wasteland of war or famine or disease, where some unnamed catastrophe had culled much of the world’s population. At the end, the audience departs, leaving Dom (from his drugs) and Xavier (from his drugs) asleep. The two leave together and Newton expresses an interest in going to Rashid’s, which he does, ending up sampling both the drugs and Dimple (who supplements his income with prostitution).

Dimple has a friend/protector in Mr. Lee whose colourful story we also hear. He has fled from China. His mother was a committed communist, so much so that she considered all money to be filth and reported male colleagues who looked at pretty girls in magazines. Her husband, however, was a writer, who wrote stories about a wastrel (deemed to be modelled on Republican characters, so he got away with it). However, he soon lost favour and ended up writing a futuristic book which Mr Lee was the only person to read. Mr. Lee fled China in a car he stole and drove all the way to Bombay, stopping off at various places on the way and staying in Bombay only because of the sea. He and Dimple have a close relationship and Dimple nurses him as he is dying and remembers him (and talks to him) after he is dead.

This is certainly a lively and colourful book. We get, as Thayil promises us, a portrait of Bombay that we will not have seen in previous Bombay books – drugs, poverty, sex in its raw state – as well as the more conventional view of Bombay’s poverty. Just as with Burroughs, this book may not be for everybody but if you don’t mind seeing life in the raw, it is certainly not a bad book.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Faber & Faber