Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Narcopolis
When he took a drag his cheeks appeared to cave in. He had become very thin and it seemed to Lee that his father no longer resembled a human being. He was a pipe attached to a head with stick arms and legs. Or he was an inanimate object, a piece of knobbed wood, a walking stick or polished figurine. 

Right from the moment Trish mentioned about Narcopolis via the TLC Book Tours, I was hooked. I loved how well the title covers the essence of the book - this truly is about the city of O: about Bombay whose underbelly bore witness to the reign of opium and heroin, and also about the drugs themselves as a metaphorical city. I also loved that this was set in India, but the writing hasn't been "Americanized" so much so that an Indian like me may find it hard to relate to. And on top of it, I was looking forward to reading about this subject matter - about the drug-obsessed sector of Bombay, that I had not yet had a chance to read or learn about, other than always hearing vague hints of how it's all there but not really seeing some concrete proof.

Jeet Thayil
Narcopolis is all about the infatuation with drugs and the lives of the few people whose main occupation involves dealing with them. The setting is 1970s Bombay when the narrator first arrived in the city and becomes drawn towards the drug-induced stupor of the underworld and the slums. Through his eyes, we meet the other characters - Dimple, a eunuch who makes pipes in the opium den; Rashid, the owner of the den; Xavier, a controversial painter whose ideas are not always welcomed; Mr. Lee, a Chinese refugee who takes to Dimple almost as if she were his daughter, and many others. Most of these characters worshiped opium, with some of them staying high all day.

Narcopolis was a strange kind of book, and I mean strange in a good way. It was unconventional, it was different, and it was just as stimulating and entrancing as the characters found themselves to be in after smoking opium. And that is this book's strength. The author was not afraid of taking a path that I haven't seen tread that often. For instance, he describes in many places the experience of smoking opium so well that I almost felt as if I was doing it, even though I don't know anything about what taking drugs feels like. Although he never glorified it in the sense that he was coaxing the reader to try it, he didn't try to mince the descriptions or honey out the language to make it feel less overwhelming or inauthentic.

The setting of this book is a time period well understood to be the time when the hippie movement was in full swing, drugs were the in thing and there were plenty of opium and heroin dens with business booming. Narcopolis is set against that backdrop with the narrator's voice and the actions of the other characters nicely evoked that culture. Thayil's writing is also stellar. It has a poetic and lyrical feel that went very well with the type of story he was trying to say.

At the same time, Narcopolis isn't all dreamy and drowsy and poetry. Since it is set in slums and the red light streets and poverty-ridden areas, the unclean aspects of human lives are also well explored. It is quite fascinating going from the dreamy world of drugs and springing down hard on the messy unappealing real world, but Jeet Thayil makes that transition feel very natural. The vast number of characters all add their idiosyncrasies to the story line - that is shared between them, as each battle their personal demons and troubles with opium being the book's primary character.

I took way too long to read this one. My review was supposed to have come up last month, but first the book arrived here only a few days before the review date and then Rue arrived and messed up every definition of normalcy that I ever had, but whenever I got the time to read the book, I found myself totally hooked by it - right from the 6-page single-sentence prologue all the way to the end.

I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


12 comments:

Jill Broderick said...

After reading The Blue Notebook, I no longer want to read anything about the underbelly of Bombay! I think I am still emotionally scarred from that book after 2 or 3 years! On the other hand, I love reading about cities that are "metaphorical" like Bombay or Berlin. I am also tempted by the fact that you say Thayil's writing is poetic and lyrical!

Niranjana said...

I've been seeing this everywhere, and "strange in a good way" seems like a perfect description! I do want to read it, but I think i'll need to wait till the mood is just right to truly appreciate this one.

zibilee said...

I am so glad you liked this one! It was totally strange, but in a very good way, and it really made me think about the lives of the people in the throes of opium addiction. I know it's going to be a book that I remember for a long time, and I am really glad that you got the chance to read it. I found it elegant and intoxicating :)

Care said...

Sounds rather intense. And how is little Rue doing?

Helen Murdoch said...

This book sounds like it has some elements in common with Shantaram (Bombay, drug culture, etc) and that was really interesting. Glad to hear it was a good read

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I'm glad that you finally had time to read this one - sounds like it was a great fit for you! Thanks for being on the tour.


And I just LOVE Rue!!! What a cutie! We just got a puppy last month that looks quite a bit like your Rue - aren't they just the best?!


- Heather J @ TLC Book Tours

Athira / Aths said...

I read only the first few pages of Blue Notebook, which were harrowing and I couldn't get past that. This one is way tamer compared to that book. I think what makes this book easier to read is that there isn't any sentimentality in it. And even in all the sordidness of the surroundings, there is some beauty too.

Athira / Aths said...

I will be looking forward to hearing what you think!

Athira / Aths said...

Elegant and intoxicating are just the right words! :)

Athira / Aths said...

Rue is doing great, when she is not deafening us with her mad barking. Man, that girl can bark for a whole day if she put her mind to it. :-o

Athira / Aths said...

That is a good comparison. It does look like there are some common elements between Shantaram and Narcopolis - though because they are set in different time periods (right?) the role of drugs is different.

Athira / Aths said...

I would love to see the photos of your puppy! What breed is it?