Review: Narcopolis

123.Jeet Thayil-NarcopolisJeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is unlike anything I’ve ever read, an intoxicating trip into the opium dens of Old Bombay in the 1970s.

The plot, such as it is, hangs like loose, swaying threads from the garments of the habituées of an opium room on Shuklaji Street run by the twice-married, permanently intoxicated Rashid. His assistant and sometime lover is Dimple, aka Zeenat, a hijra (transsexual), who does not use the words woman or man to describe herself. ‘Some days I’m neither, or I’m nothing. On other days I feel I’m both,’ she tells the anonymous narrator.

Around Rashid, Dimple, Rashid’s Chinese predecessor Mr Lee and regulars like Ramesh aka Rumi and said narrator, stories swirl like smoke, drifting from Bombay’s hard streets to revolutionary China, from hijra brothels to a detox facility run by a former monk and heroin addict.

Novelist Hari Kunzru’s experience of Narcopolis mirrors my own: ‘Stories unfold and hang in the air. They slide into each other, until you’re not quite sure how long you’ve been reading it.’

A former alcoholic and heroin addict, Thayil offers unique insight into the world he describes. While he doesn’t shirk away from the awfulness of addiction, he also captures its allure — especially as an alternative to the available reality. As Rumi says of Bombay as he queues outside Rashid’s opium room, waiting for an African drug mule to shit out the heroin he has smuggled in, ‘[H]ow the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs? …I challenge you to live here without turning to Grade A narcotics’.

Like Bombay itself, Narcopolis is not for the faint-hearted, though the prose in this 2012 Man Booker Prize nominated debut is lyrical and mesmerising, even as it describes scenes of terrible poverty and cruelty.

But for readers like me who value the insights that a local writer can shed on a place as confronting and intriguing as the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) and who welcome glimpses into worlds beyond our imagination, Narcopolis will not only satisfy: it will blow your mind.

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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6 Responses to Review: Narcopolis

  1. Angela – It certainly sounds as though it’s a gut-level look at the opium culture as well as other aspects of life in Mumbai. It’s an interesting and important question, too: how do people get hooked in the first place and why? And I’m like you: I like honest looks at places I visit in books… I’m glad you found this so much worth the read.

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    • angelasavage says:

      Margot, for me one of the most interesting exchanges in the book was between Dimple and the anonymous narrator. She can’t understand why, with his relative wealth and education, he turns to ‘the pipe’ — and later to garad, or heroin. For me, the class consciousness in this novel is part of what makes it so interesting.

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  2. Good review. I’m very keen to check this book out.

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  3. Samantha D says:

    Hi, Angela.

    Narcopolis has been on my TBR list since last year, when I listened to Jeet Thayil discuss his life and works on a Guardian Books podcast. Thayil was a fascinating speaker. And I also felt mildly embarrassed to have been so ignorant of the period of history and place he was talking/writing about. From your review, I’m not quite sure whether you liked Narcopolis or not? But I shall steel myself and bump it up the list.

    Regards.

    Samantha

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    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks for dropping by, Sam. It was an interview with Jeet Thayil in The Big Issue that sparked my interest in Narcopolis. Re: your comment that you’re not quite sure from my review whether I liked it or not, often when people ask me if I liked a book, I feel like I give them a politician’s reply, i.e. not answering yes or no. Partly because ‘like’ rarely comes close to describing the complex emotional ways in which I can respond to what I’m reading. Also because I don’t necessarily need to like a book in order to find something of value in it. There are scenes of brutality and cruelty in Narcopolis which are not remotely likeable. But for me it was a mesmerising and fascinating read.

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