|Oct/Nov 2013 Reviews & Interviews|
Faber. 2013. 292 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 27578 6.
Jeet Thayil's hallucinatory novel is semi-autobiographical. He spent his early years in Hong Kong; studied for his BA degree in Bombay, where he became addicted to heroin; moved for a while to New York; then returned to India to live in Delhi. It was 20 years before a health crisis caused him to give up his heroin habit. Now, in his 50s, he says that poetry is his only addiction.
Narcopolis is his first novel, and it is set in the opium dens and amongst the poorest most marginalized people in Bombay. Zeenat, or Dimple as she is usually called, is a eunuch. Castrated as a child, she lives as a hijra, travelling between genders and working first in a brothel, then as a pipe-maker, preparing opium pipes for addicts in a slum where the poor, the deranged, and the addicted lead sordid and violent lives.
Narcopolis was rejected by every Indian publisher it was sent to, and it has been badly received by Indian reviewers, who objected to it as being unnecessary sleazy and sensationalist. But it was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012—a remarkable achievement for a first novel.
Certainly, it immerses the reader in the degraded lives of child prostitutes, pimps, casual violence, addictive drug-taking and the terrible poverty that exists behind the modern, middle-class facade of the city.
The opening chapter is one long, seamless, opium-dream of a sentence. "I'm not human," says its narrator. "I'm a pipe of O telling this story... it's writing it down straight from the pipe's mouth." But the story focuses mostly on Dimple, her past, her present, and the stories of those she lives with and works for. The history of opium in India and China underlies the narrative of the old Chinese man who teaches Dimple to make pipes. There is religious debate, too, but only because Dimple moves between religions, as she moves between genders. And there are stories and conversations, scraps of Indian history, literature, bits of music and poetry, all woven together in a language which is as hypnotic as the opium fumes in which it is soaked.
Narcopolis is vivid and compelling, but it is not an easy book to stomach, and it immerses the reader in a world which most would prefer not to see and certainly not to experience.