Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Without intending any disrespect to narrator Robertson Dean (in fact, his deep, rich voice makes for a memorable listen), this is a book you must see on the page. If you only go audible, you’ll miss you too much from the very first sentence onward: “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero and heroin of this story …” – the italics I’ve added here should demonstrate why. Additionally, unless you were reading line by line, you would never realize that the “Prologue” is a single sentence which spans seven pages. You would miss the poetry (literally – Jeet Thayil published four poetry collections before this, his debut novel), the graphical rules of stanza rhyming, unexpected surreal line drawings, and more. You would, no doubt, have to settle for a far diminished experience, which would certainly seem an ironic shame for a novel infused with the maximum highs found in the drug-worshipping underworld of 1970s and ’80s Bombay.
Shortlisted in 2012 for both the Man Booker Prize and the Man Asian Literary Prize, Narcopolis begins and ends with “Bombay,” as word, destination, memory: “All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.” The narrator Dom (whose full name won’t be revealed until book’s end) arrives in the legendary city, ousted from New York City following a drug arrest. Amidst Bombay’s opium dens – that soon give way to houses of heroin-worship – Dom introduces the unforgettable characters who populate his hallucinatory journey. His leading lady is an emasculated hijra prostitute named Dimple who becomes an object of obsession for ex-patriot poet and painter Newton Xavier. Beyond the brothel, Dimple’s closest relationship is with an elegant older Chinese addict, Mr. Lee, who escapes his native country during political purges only to long for return, even in death.
From the ancient Chinese explorer Zheng He, castrated as a boy and trained as an imperial eunuch, to an everyday businessman who thinks nothing of murdering a “housewife hooker” and remorselessly going home to his extended family, Dom proves to be a nimble guide, unblinkingly navigating hidden corners and revealing sordid details. He serves as witness to “those boys and girls and men and women who had been taken by garad heroin”; he is the self-appointed amanuensis who “say[s] the whole name and remember[s], that was the way to honor the dead.”
Thayil’s biography for the September 2013 internationales literaturfestival Berlin discloses that Narcopolis “refers back to Thayil’s own experiences with drug and alcohol addiction,” certainly raising questions about how much of his debut effort is autobiographical. Thayil also chooses to stay with the familiar in his current work-in-progress: he shares in a July 2012 South Asia Journal interview that the poet/painter Newton Xavier returns as the main character in his next novel, Saint X. If the best advice for writers is to write what they know, Thayil’s efforts are certainly evidence that doing so will reap just rewards.