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Monday, 5 November 2012

Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis -- a review

Dum Maro Dum: The True Confessions of a Bombaiyya Opium Addict

Set in pre-liberalisation India (or to be more precise the Bombay of the 1970s before it became Mumbai and Maximum City), Narcopolis takes us into a world of dark opium dens redolent with the sickly sweet scent of dissipation and dissolution. Newly sent away from the Upper East Side, where he was caught stoned on downers and buying dope, our young man (a Syrian Christian from the southern state of Kerala like the author himself), finds himself on Shukla ji Street ‘new to the street and the city, separated by [my] lack of knowingness’. He finds himself at Rashid’s den where the transvestite Dimple initiates him to the etiquette of the pipe: of how to hold the pipe in relation to one’s body in a ‘lunar ebb and pull of smoke that filled first the lungs and then the veins.’ Discovering the big O boat, ‘sailing on its treacle tide’, he takes a long pull, settles down on a pallet and prepares to tell his ‘lovely stories’.

Appropriately enough, the very first chapter opens thus:

‘Before Dimple came to be called Zeenat, she worked part-time for Rashid and disappeared every evening to the hijra’s brothel. I smoked at her station even if other pipes were free, and we talked the way smokers talk, horizontally, with long pauses, our words so soft they sounded like the incomprehensible phrases spoken by small children. I asked the usual foolish questions. Is it better to be a man or a woman? Dimple said: For conversation, better to be a woman, for everything else, for sex, better to be a man. Then I asked if she was a man or a woman and she nodded as if it was the first time she’d been asked…’

What follows is a pastiche of images and ideas, people dead and living and a narrative that teeters between morphine-induced hallucinations and the gritty reality of life in the bylanes of Old Bombay. A somewhat inexplicable interlude in the China of Mao Tse Tung with references to workers’ centres and people’s revolution makes a small bump in the otherwise smooth ride on the highway to nowhere. Back in the backstreets of Bombay, Narcopolis resumes its heedless mindless journey from one drug-induced fantasy to another, from one erotic (mis)adventure to the next.

Twenty years later, the narrator – having introduced us to an eclectic cast of characters comprising madams, whores, pimps, pushers, poets, eunuchs and the flotsam and jetsam of the western world that ends up washed ashore in Bombay – settles down, with lit pipe, to tell the story of a ‘great and broken city’. The telling is important for it is only in the telling of this story that the past – a strange landscape that is ‘not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to’ -- comes alive once again. A lot has changed in these years; from sailing the opiate sea of a chandu khana, the action has moved to harder drugs and harsher people.

Thayil is described by his publicists as a musician and a performance-poet; I must confess I am stumped by the latter moniker for I have grown up to believe poets to be second only to visionaries. This is Thayil’s first foray into long fiction and, again I must confess, for a first novel it is a clever book, cleverly written, for clever people. It left me feeling unmoved and, singularly, un-clever.

Also read:

1.     Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta (Random House, 2004), Part-memoir, part-travelogue, an intensely personal look at the city and its people

2.     Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai (Alfred Knopff, 1988):  A German Jew flees Europe to find a safe haven in Bombay where he lives in the company of stray cats

3.     Shantaram by Gregory Davis Roberts (Abacus, 2005), An escaped Australian bank robber and drug addict  finds a new life in the maw of Mumbai
This review was first published in The Herald, September 2012.

1 comment:

  1. This is not the book for the wishy washy airy fairy cup-o-chai bourgeoisie reader of Indian writing in English. This is for the connoisseur, one who knows the pipe and the tales of the smoke and mirrors of life. The journey into this Parnassus of quickened, heightened, multiplied consciousness in Narcopolis begins and ends in Bombay, with an exciting interlude in China and a mention of New York. It is a journey on the slow train of transgressions, living vicariously the vicissitudes of its inhabitants slipping djinn-like in and out of opiate tunnels of illumination. Dive in and discover the secrets of Dionysian harmonies.