Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
When I closed the cover to Narcopolis, I had two dominant impressions: First, there is no shying away from the fact that this is a narrative about drug culture (and on a larger scale, criminal culture) in India, beginning in the 1970s and progressing nearly to present day, and secondly, this book is not for the delicate of spirit. On more than one occasion, I set the novel aside because I couldn’t absorb any more scenes of detached cruelty, unfathomable poverty, desperation, or violence. But I still kept coming back. I still finished it.
Rather than give a synopsis, a summary of characters and action, I’ll tell you what propelled me through this debut novel and fueled my desire to pursue the end. If you’re looking for more traditional reviews, you can find some here and here.
- Let’s say that I consider Mr. Thayil to be a “credible” source. The author is a poet, but also an ex-addict, and as such, I am optimistic that — while he may embellish and fictionalize as the novelist should — his account will offer veracity. One of the many reasons that I read, one of the main reasons I read, is to experience as many possible human perspectives as I can. Jeet Thayil is a man who possesses talent with language and applies it to a narration about addiction. I want to read what he has to say.
- There is a voyeuristic didactic aspect. Without having to literally participate in these experiences, I broadened myself, yet since many of the stories revolve around illicit activity there is a sense of voyeurism throughout the book. A very few scenes may titillate and intrigue, but most are unromanticized — factual escalating to grotesque — forcing readers like myself to acknowledge that this is reality, closer to common than aberration.
- I learned about a non-American culture. Although I was sometimes frustrated by the stop-and-start pace of my reading, I refused to gloss over specific terms of clothing and food with which I was unfamiliar. Part of the engrossing nature of Narcopolis is the vividness with which Bombay is built around you: smells and tastes, a very particular atmosphere surrounding you while you read, in large part due to Thayil’s attention to necessary and purposeful detail. I am now familiar with Indian cuisine, fashion, and pop culture in a way that I was not before reading this novel. Yet, not every word I had to look up was so innocuous; terms I’d never heard before like khana and garad made their way into my vocabulary. The one with the most impact on the story, personified by a character, was hijra. If you’re unfamiliar with the term and Google it, you learn that it’s India’s “third gender”; if you’re unfamiliar with the term and take only context clues from Narcopolis, you learn that this is a male who has been gelded as a child and turned to prostitution to survive. By the conclusion of this book, I’d spent almost as much time online researching as I’d spent reading it, but I feel better for all of it.
- A less-strenuously structured narrative than traditional novels. The Prologue is a 7-page run-on sentence. I’d been warned in a review but had forgotten. It almost turned me off, but I am a disciple of form and experimentation. It seemed to me that the majority of the story was a rhythmic running-on of narrative; it’s closer to the ways in which we think and experience life than it is to the way we recount it in writing.
- Not a story devoid of hope. Near to the end of the book, the character who I consider to be the “main” — Dimple, the hirja — says, “…and I understand how foolish it is to be proud or angry and, most of all, how wrong it is to withhold affection from those who need it most, which is to say, everyone. That’s all.” This is not a a story without humor, without poignant insight, without feeling or questioning. I saw a world through another lens by reading Narcopolis, and, although much of it was dark and painful, there was also humor, human connection, and new interpretations of life which, before, I had not even thought to consider.
When I finish a book, if it taught me nothing; if it did not inspire or provoke thought; if it failed to thrill me, engage me, or make me care, then I consider it a “nothing” book, something I’ve read from which I gained little to remember or implement. Narcopolis was not a “nothing book.” At the end of it, I have a more full understanding — a more complete narrative — of the world than I did before, but that does not mean it was easily won.
If nothing else, take a minute to read an excerpt from early on in the book: A scene between the narrator and Dimple highlights several of the recurring themes, including Dimple’s sexuality and (how could I not include it?) reading and learning English.
If you’ve read Narcopolis, what did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think that you will?