Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
My Rating: 4 of 5 Stars


Forgetfulness was a gift, a talent to be nurtured.

In the war of remembering and forgetting, what side do we choose? Or do we choose at all? Isn’t life that, which happens when we are busy planning it? In the seductively opiated heavens of narrow-alleyed Bombay, a membrane-like life of a eunuch is stretched between her dreams and reality. The prima donna of a famed whore house, Dimple regales her customers with her melancholic eyes and business-like primness and efficiency. Wallowing silently in the memory of her departed lover, she wilfully insulates herself from her present state and instead falls back on books for sweet mental chaos. Come an unusually besotted patron one day and she switches her address in his favour. But does life change? Does the things worth remembering pile up and those worth forgetting, diminish?

Narcopolis is a stirring and disturbing account of that underbelly of Bombay that sniffs, smells, consumes and surrenders to drugs – a dark side which permeates into our skins as we delve deep into the protagonist’s life, her adeptness in fixing opium pipes by the day, her strangely coherent beliefs, her platonic bonds, her aggression under violation, her hope-drilled eyes. When sketching the life cycle of Dimple and people who walk in and out of her life (pimps, clerks, doctors, painters, students, wastrels), the narrative teems with a markedly persuasive texture; so much so that after a while, the professions of the characters fall asunder like dried leaves at end of a trying season, leaving bare the inner recesses of their hearts that contain the color of vigour and vulnerability, like any person we might know in our daily lives.

One of the highlights of the work is its marvellous and haunting prose. The book opens in a Proustian-styled 2000-words sentence which undulates in tone and intensity like a man under infectious intoxication.

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust— wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world…..

Because life is never fair and such unfairness appears even more magnified when viewed from the dingy lows of a whore house, Thayil’s passionate alternating first and third person voices lose a bit of a steam in the midst. But closure, like opening, is his strength and he spools the lose ends into a tight bun yet again in the culminating chapters, providing a tender, poignant climax. And like the prologue’s beginning, the final paragraph ends with ‘Bombay’ – a masterful metaphoric touch to indicate, perhaps, the surreptitious phenomenon of life coming full circle despite forces at work to render it otherwise.


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One thought

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