Bombay,or Mumbai, as it is known today, is brought to life by Jeet Thayil in this engrossing novel of sex, drugs and love in the underbelly of this sprawling city.
The characters in this book include the amazing Dimple, who was born a boy but who was castrated at a young age and works as a prostitute in a brothel next to an opium den, where she prepares the pipes. Although she has no formal education she is able to read and is always looking for beauty although she doesn't find it in the streets of this huge metropolis. Among others who frequent the opium den are the Chinese refugee/businessman, Mr.Lee, who has his own tale of woe and Rumi, a working man who is addicted to violence. Opium gives way to heroin as the years go by but the cast of characters seeking relief from whatever ails them only increases in number.
Mr.Thayil, a poet, whose use of language is so vivid that the city and its inhabitants really come to life, also portrays, vividly, the violent riots between Muslims and Hindus which erupted in 70s, 80s and 90s and which hatred still exists today. I highly recommend this book and will attempt to read other of his books.
Jeet Thayil's novel Narcopolis is the story of Bombay, the old city that changed its name and destroyed part of its history. It is told from the point of view of a man who travels to the city from New York in the 1970s. He is fascinated by the poor areas where criminals provide drugs and prostitution as an alternative way of life for a variety of Indian people. The common denominator of these people is psychological and physical pain. Sex and intoxication disconnect the neurons from the individuals' pain receptors. In this depiction of Bombay, many residents have found a life of the senses in rhythm with the life of the old city.
The underworld is accepting of characters who deviate radically from normal expectations. These marginalized souls include an opium den operator, a transgender opium pipe preparer, a violent day worker and family man who visits the den, an alcoholic artist who acts out the expectations of deviance by his admirers, a Chinese expatriate businessman mourning the loss of his culture, and other survivors determined to connect without pain to the immediate life of the subcontinent, the mysterious Eastern metropolis of Bombay.
Although the old Bombay and its people seem doomed to the squalor of small lives and little motivation to improve their lot, there is remarkable freedom for the adventurous in the life of the immediate senses and easy gratification of desires. There is plenty of opportunity for consideration of morality, religion, art, personal responsibility, reincarnation, violence, rebellion, and the soaring illusion of freedom induced by intoxication. It is all there in the ancient city for people with the courage to immerse themselves in its uplifting and destructive life. The visitor is seduced by the city and comes to understand that it demands that free people give affection to those who need it, and everyone in Bombay regardless of caste needs it.
Opium is the symbol of the old Bombay in the novel. Using it is a slow, ritual process that involves a camaraderie and acceptance of others that fosters some mutual affection for all involved. When the visitor rehabs and leaves the old Bombay, he loses track of the life of the city. Revisiting the new city, Mumbai, in the first decade of the 21st Century, heroin from Pakistan has become the new symbol. Its use involves an isolated process that is quick and desperate interfering with the affectionate bonds that were part of ritual opium use. The visitor sees that the city forgot its past and became a place of immediate but dissociative life. Without time to give and receive affection, the incidence of violence, cruelty, and artless tearing down and rebuilding parts of the renamed city has stolen its mysterious life force in the eyes of the returning visitor.
Narcopolis reminds me of The Alexandria Quartet Boxed Set by Lawrence Durrell in which characters try to understand the life force of the great city of Alexandria as it changes over the time of their interacting lives. This is a very interesting novel especially in its description of characters who believe that the pulse of the city is like the perpetual high that they seek with chemicals. Ultimately, these truth seekers are overwhelmed by the power of the city and the limits of their understanding of their futile quest to be free of pain.
the narrator, dom ullis, begins by informing the reader his story is about bombay, told to him by the opium pipe. ullis is a bit of a faker (spell it either way), reliable, but with a penchant for exaggerating effects and describing his realms of bombay with language from lurid and sensationalized magazines. don't be taken in by him. his prologue, written to give the impression of someone deep in a opium state of mind, is a six page run on sentence. his sentence isn't the type of run on sentence of molly bloom's stream of consciousness. ullis's run away prologue is coherent and easy to read, of a series of sentences lacking periods and the following capital letters which, conventionally, begin sentences. after a few lines, the reader can catch on and follow ullis's initiatory style on his own terms, a style to which the narrator never returns.
and so with the story--really about dimple, the prostitute born male who underwent a painful sex change at the age of nine to work in a bordello. once ullis disappears early from the story and dimple becomes protagonist, the style changes and the reader is guided by her around the khana, the opium room, and introduced to the regulars of the room, rashid, the owner; bengali, who acts as a kind of manager, sharing his thoughts, one of them: would the fate of opheus had turned out differently had he chosen a more pleasant tune; mr lee, a competitor, a refugee from china, his interesting back story told in detail; and, of course, dimple, hijra, eunuch, prostitute and preparer of pipes in the khana.
this is a closed world, a world that cannot hide from time and progress. near the conclusion of the story, decades have passed and ullis returns to a changed bombay. the khana no longer the same, heroin has replaced opium, and cocaine heroin. modernization has shifted the consciousness of dreamers as to what is dreamed as well as the choice of drugs.
the closed world novel has more in common with camus' The Plague' and an obscure novel `Blueschild Baby' by george cain, than the works by burroughs or baudelaire. there is a tone of the senses evocative of the novellas by anais nin.
jeet thayil's writing gives the impression he could be a writer, as encompassing as balzac or dickens, of unexplored areas of a large city. i hope he writes more.
on October 4, 2012
Narcopolis is 20 years too late and exasperatingly pretentious. It is repetitive beyond exasperation, has a formulaic Kamathipura (for those not in the know, it is Asia's second largest red light area in Mumbai) cast of pimps, prostitutes and peddlers and is written with a cold, cynical pen to get the firangs high on Mumbai exotica. Add to that a soulless narrative (coming from an accomplished poet, that's doubly sad) which leaves you without any empathy for a single character in the entire novel. The best part is the 6 page introduction written without a comma. It starts out promisingly and then, just goes steadily downhill. To me, it seemed a singularly dishonest piece of work which became a punishment of sorts as the pages rambled on. As a rule though, if I have nothing good to say, I refrain from commenting adversely about any piece of work, but this one made me mad enough to make an exception. The Booker nomination only means that somewhere a more deserving piece of work has cruelly got passed over. This is of course an intensely personal sentiment and I don't want anyone who has liked the book to take personal offense. After all, any reading of a book is an intensely personal affair and I would yet urge whoever was earlier interested in giving it a try to not be dissuaded by my sentiment. Maybe you will love it for reasons which have escaped me completely. For me, this book encapsulated just about everything that gives the literary fiction genre a bad name.
on March 27, 2012
Narcopolis is a first-rate literary achievement. The author's lucid and versatile prose style bespeaks mastery of language, and lends itself to finding the richness and value in the surreal, the mystical, the natural, the haunted, the stuff of vivid dreams and hallucinations, and occasionally collides with the world of the restless dead. Before all else, however, though its words are well-chosen, it's sentences well-wrought, and its paragraphs mesh neatly from one illuminating, sometimes beautiful, page to another, Narcopolis is about the brutally chaotic meaninglessness of life in Bombay, the enormous city now known as Mumbai.
If there is a character whose life typifies the poverty, chaos, and unthinkable suffering of Bombay, it is Dimple. Her real name is something else that she's long forgotten, having been given away by her mother when she was six or seven. While the name Dimple seems feminine enough, one suitably coupled with our use of the pronoun "her," this is misleading. Dimple, by whatever name, was born a boy, but after being given away or sold, who knows, when she reached age eight or nine her scrotum and penis were cut off, a sort of double castration suitable to an over-determined eunuch, someone who has been surgically designated to live out her days as a prostitute. If her customers are kind, they will apply lubricant before using her rectum as a vagina. She spends the rest of her working day preparing and serving pipes to those who frequent the opium den that shares a floor with her brothel.
In spare moments, Dimple teaches herself to read, just because she likes to, and she smokes opium, snorts cocaine, and eventually learns to appreciate heroin. In time, the dissolute life for which she was foredoomed takes its toll and her beauty fades. It's true that Dimple didn't have to do drugs, or she might at least have exercised moderation, say after the fashion of her friend, old Mr. Lee. But if we don't delude ourselves, we can see that the escape provided by narcotics was a truly rational response to the horrors of Dimple's biography and the world in which she lived it out.
Dimple knew that there were other ways to live, but nothing better was available to her. She wondered why others, especially the young who were whole, well nourished, nicely clothed, had access to as much quality education as anyone might want, and who had the love and protection of their parents did drugs much as she did. They, she imagined, could find meaning and fulfillment in the world as it was. If not in school, family, or work, then there were certainly enough religions whose tenets were waiting to be warmly embraced: Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Jainism, Coptic Christian, and no doubt others not mentioned. Everyone seemed to have a religion, many practiced them dutifully, but in the end it was all quite perfunctory, myth and ceremony but nothing uncorrupted and substantial to fill the void. When Rumi, indulged son of the wealthy Muslim Rashid, was given a choice between drug rehab and prison, he likened it to a choice between gonorrhea and syphilis.
Perhaps this is the most that one can expect in a socially disorganized, thoroughly corrupt city where, in fact, the only sacred institution is the market, for drugs, people, entertainment, the necessities of life, certainty as to your gender, avoiding a sudden plunge into abysmal poverty, where everything, including the most horrible, is possible for a price. A city of twenty-five million in a failed nation caught up in the accelerating, expanding, all-pervasive process of globalization that got going with a vengeance in the 1970's, the same time as the beginning of Narcopolis. If this is the source of the brutally chaotic meaninglessness of life in Bombay or Mumbai -- whatever -- Narcopolis may be a glimpse of our future. For a non-fiction version see Katherine Boo's ethnography Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
on January 13, 2013
One has to admire the author's audacity for basing his first full-length novel within the crowded confines of the lanes and by-lanes of Bombay`s red-light district. (Bombay, not Mumbai, mind you!). It is probably the author`s familiarity with the city that gave him the confidence to set the book amidst these streets, but its risky business. Those who know the city will enjoy the raucous cacophony, but those alien to the city will find it a bore.
The book opens with a lengthy passage - you will either love it or hate it; either way it sets the tone for the book to follow. The author`s style of writing wonderfully conveys the drug-induced soporific haze, or `nasha`; and much of the story is narrated in the jerky, disjointed manner of those high on drugs. Now and again there is mention of events outside the world of drugs, but they never intrude to break the spell. Eventually the novelty of smoking an opium pipes in the dim-lit, dens begins to wear out, but the story, like the lives of addicts in the book, is going nowhere.
For long stretches, the only action is someone searching for his next hit. Eventually, it grows repetitive and begins to feel like watching pay-channel porn - the background varies but the action is the same, and that is the story of Narcopolis!
on May 16, 2016
I actually first listened to this book on a long road trip, and I loved it so much I've already read it twice. The writing is unique and fresh, and the characters are well-drawn and fascinating. This is definitely not a light-hearted read, but it is a wonderful book.
Addiction can mean, among other things, never having to wonder what to do with time. And, philosophy out of an opium pipe can apparently still give us something to think about. That philosophy and addiction are related may require some thought. If we need some substance to help that thought process, we are truly on our way to completing the circle. As long as the opium doesn't run out, we may have discovered a sort of philosophical perpetual motion. Or we may have created an excuse to tell the world to get lost.
Thayil's book is filled with people who may be at the edge of that "get lost" world. They are people met in places that aren't the type to be mentioned to others, and they are not likely to be put on a resume as references. It's such a shame, since the people we meet in such places know us so well and could give the best insight into our character.
This book breaks the rule of "Indian novels" that seemingly requires discussions of the complete family tree of every character. But, it still is all about the characters. One of the main characters isn't even Indian. Or, at least, not Indian by birth. I'm not sure he's even Indian by temperament. But, he is a character in Bombay and a major subject of the book.
I felt this book got off to a slow start, though it might have been me that was slow to catch on. But, if you should have the same initial feeling, don't assume the book isn't worth finishing. You would miss out on a very good story. I felt I was "seeing" the characters as they went through their days, and the buildings stood out in the Indian sun.
Narcopolis is thus a story of people, relationships among people, relationships among people among substances that can both elevate and kill. The people are both shallow and deep. They will get to you if you let them. This is quite good for any novel, especially a debut one.
on July 10, 2012
What's fascinating about this book is it's description of the evolution of drug culture in India.We start with opium smoking and go to variations of heroin as Afghanistan explodes. Cheap second rate souped up heroin floods the country, old ways die.A new and ugly beast is being born and I would say it is symbolized exquisitely with the idiotic renaming of Bombay as Mumbai ,which is the setting of this novel.Hatred , arrogance and corruption is always there.The function of religion is to assuage inhumanity as Hindus murder Muslims and Muslims see selling drugs to non - Muslims as, OK , what else would the children of hellfire deserve?
This is grim ,gritty , gross territory and no pretense to the contrary should be maintained.Anyone who doubts it should read the description of a Bombay jails "facilities".There is no redemption here but admittedly snippets of hope.Hope is often all you have.This is not a novel that denies the possibility of redemption but makes it very clear that it's not cheap.Bromides about spirituality and having a nice day aren't going to do it.It's a world where boys become women - involuntarily and women are things.For that matter everyone is a thing and drugable, if not disposable.The author circles around a harsh Christian redemption but can't quite go there .Good for the novel , not necessarily for him.
on September 15, 2012
I remember reading at one point the insight that just like drug addicts think that they are more fascinating than they really are, drug stories are much less fascinating than the authors think. This holds true for this bok which is mostly a mess and has long passages where you are certain that the author was too enamored with his story to really pay attention to how it was coming across.
Many of the problems of the book have to do with its outsized ambitions. Characters appear and disappear. Entire stories get dropped into the narrative about relatively minor characters who are then killed off in a "and that's what he said before he died" way without much information in that regard. Even though the characters are drug addicts, there's not much stories about them being addicts. There are points where the author is announcing his influences in very hamfisted manners.
On the other hand, there are moments of elegance and poetry. The transgendered character is pretty heart breaking in her stories. There are scenes of terror.
Mostly, this is a book that is more enamored with its audacity than with the lives of the pathetic losers that it depicts.