Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. This is a book about drugs, sex, death, perversion, addiction, love, and god, and has more in common in its subject matter with the work of William S. Burroughs or Baudelaire than with the subcontinent’s familiar literary lights. Above all, it is a fantastical portrait of a beautiful and damned generation in a nation about to sell its soul. Written in Thayil’s poetic and affecting prose, Narcopolis charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis.
Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city’s underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of unforgettably degenerate and magnetic characters works and patronizes the venue, including Dimple, the eunuch who makes pipes in the den; Rumi, the salaryman and husband whose addiction is violence; Newton Xavier, the celebrated painter who both rejects and craves adulation; Mr. Lee, the Chinese refugee and businessman; and a cast of poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters.
Decades pass to reveal a changing Bombay, where opium has given way to heroin from Pakistan and the city’s underbelly has become ever rawer. Those in their circle still use sex for their primary release and recreation, but the violence of the city on the nod and its purveyors have moved from the fringes to the center of their lives. Yet Dimple, despite the bleakness of her surroundings, continues to search for beauty—at the movies, in pulp magazines, at church, and in a new burka-wearing identity.
After a long absence, the narrator returns in 2004 to find a very different Bombay. Those he knew are almost all gone, but the passion he feels for them and for the city is revealed.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
To be frank, Narcopolis is a complicated and difficult to read novel. The characters are complex, sentences go on for multiple pages, the narrative keeps shifting from one character to another and from one time period to another. Everyone may not like or enjoy it. There were portions of the novel where I lost track of what is happening and had to re-read some pages to understand it fully. However, once you get to know the characters well and get into the flow, the book is an absolute delight. It exposes the filthy and smelly underbelly of Bombay with a brutality that has never been attempted before.
Set in the infamous opium dens of Shuklaji Street in Bombay, it is a story of addiction with the city of Bombay as the protagonist Supporting characters include Dom - the foreign returned junkie, Rashid - addict and owner of an opium den, Dimple/Zeenat - addict, eunuch prostitute who works at Rashid's, Bengali - addict and employee at Rashid's who has an opinion on everything...
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Narcopolis joins the array of novels bold to real the life below the surface of the beautiful thriving old city, Bombay. It deals with drugs and addiction, sex and love, violence and perversion, god and death. Not the type of raw book I would chose to read ten years ago. I have grown up.
A varied cast populates the unfurling opium smoke - a murderer, businessmen, pimps, prostitutes, thugs, poets, painters, all drowning in degradation, lust and crime. We are drawn into a languorous world of shocking low life in and around Rashid's opium house on Shuklaji Street sometime in the 1970s, place of alleyways, and villages and decrepit buildings. We meet Dimple, the eunuch who prepares the pipes for the regular clients, the preparation an art like a sacred tea ceremony. The eunuch shows up as a beautiful lady who enjoys reading, goes to the cinema to watch lengthy Bollywood movies and listens to stories Mr Lee relates. Mr Lee, a Chinese...
It'd be easy to call Narcopolis the 'Trainspotting of India,' where we swap Glasgow for Bombay, but the interesting comments on India as a developing nation and home to many varied peoples certainly elevate this book beyond an exotic re-hash.
Thayil's novel focuses on the clients and workers of a Mumbai opium den circa 1980-something. Each character seems to take a turn being the author's center of attention. It's an interesting, if familiar, device that kept me turning the pages, but I thought some of the stories felt a little underdeveloped. Attempts on Thayil's part to tie it all together in the end perhaps fall a little short, but while Narcopolis may not be a great novel, I'd say that this a very entertaining collection of intertwining short stories with some unexpected tangents. Despite the dark subject matter, I find myself appreciating again how fascinating and unique a country India is.
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