Jeet Thayil's (Kerala, India, 1959) debut novel, Narcopolis, is the only work by an author from India long listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. There has lately been a number of works published that seek to show us the "real world" of the Indian mega-cities, the world beyond the international headquarters and the Rolex dealerships. Narcopolis succeeds wonderfully in this task. He shows the city of Bombay ( I confess I prefer to call it this rather than Mumbai and I think most if the residents of the city feel the same way) transitioning from the mid-1970s when internatiolnal companies first began to make use of the vast pool of cheap college educated labor in India to do its backroom and call center work. What makes Narcopolis so powerful is how Thayil tells the story of Bombay through the lives of its most despised citizens, transsexual prostitutes, their clients and drug addicts.
As the story opens, the male narrator has just arrived from New York City. He finds himself fascinated by the dark side of the big city, in his case with an opium den and a brothel associated with it. This is not a brothel that services the needs of rich Indians and foreign business executives who want to have an Indian woman. It is one of the very cheapest sex establishments in Bombay. Most of the clients are poor but some can afford better but just like the sensation of filth and decadence. He develops a relationship with a brothel worker named Dimple, who was born as a boy but was castrated at a young age and sold to the brothel operators. She lives and dresses as a woman. I really liked her character and I was very moved when she taught herself to read. As the novel progresses, Dimple becomes more and more educated but never really imagines another life for herself. There is a lot to say about the reading life in this novel and I loved that part of it especially. It rang very true to me, how the pleasure of reading, if you can really call it that, can endure when the others are lost and how it can magnify your pain as well.
The changes in Bombay are mirrored in the drugs that are most popular in the streets and dens of the city. At the start it is opium but as the story ends it is a version of heroin that is dominant. We get to know a number of people through their visits to the brothel. The men in the brothel feel they can open themselves up in the conversations with Dimple and others who work there (after all who cares what a transsexual prostitute think of you). One of the most interesting characters is a Chinese business man who mourns the decay of Chinese culture under the great leap forward. One of the short segments, there are many fascinating interludes, I liked most concerned an artist who painted pictures of Jesus as if he were a figure from Indian two thousand years ago. The descriptions are beautiful and go deeply into the issues of merging the values of old India with western culture. It also eroticses Jesus and forces you to see him as a transfiguration of masculinity. There are deep issues here and Thayil takes us quite far into them.
Using opium is depicted as a slow languorous very mellow social process done in a ritualistic fashion in traditions that go back to the long ago. It is a social activity. From this as time process and Bombay decays, the drug of choice becomes synthetic chemicals which only destroy their users. The narrator loves drugs, he loves the brothel and the chaos of Bombay but he sees the death in it.
This is not a book for the squeamish or for those who want to be driven around the best parts of Bombay in a limo with very dark windows so you can pretend you feel bad for the poor, but really you tell yourself it is actually their fault for being so shiftless and practicing a religion you have no ability to understand. This story began when the British tried to rule India and is very much about the effects of colonizing on the psyche of India.
Narcopolis shows us the fools games behind the international headquarters, the malls and the mansions.
The prose is beautiful. I really liked the close of the novel.
I totally endorse this book with the qualification it is not for those who shy away from graphic sex and improper language.
This is a challenging book but one that will way over payback your efforts.
I was provided a free copy this book.
Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India, and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. His poetry collections includeEnglish and Apocalypso. He is the editor of Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets(Fulcrum) and Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora(Routledge). His new book of poems These Errors are Correct is forthcoming from East West. He lives in Bangalore.