Narcopolis By Jeet Thayil Penguin Press. 304 pages. $25.95
Reviewed by Vikram Johri
I watched Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas again recently and was reminded of the film while reading Narcopolis. In both the film and this book, gangsters are shown to have remarkably fulfilling inner lives, with their murderous actions (or drug peddling, in the case of Narcopolis) having little consequence on their participation in and enjoyment of family gatherings, luncheons, and weddings. I have always found this curious, but what do I know?
The action in Narcopolis takes place on Shuklaji Street in Mumbai, erstwhile Bombay. Shuklaji Street is an opium den where neighbors walk in asking for afeem to cure pains. The setting is Rashid's house, which witnesses the changing face of Bombay over 20 years, beginning in the 1970s. Rashid, the drug peddler, and Dimple, the eunuch who knows more secrets about pleasuring men than any woman would, people the book so consummately that they leap from the page.
There is also Salim, who sells watches for a pedophile in the morning and cocaine at night. And, oh yes, Rumi, the rapist goodfella, who hits a hooker so hard she loses consciousness, thereby enabling him to take her money and return home to a party. Every character in the book has a checkered history, and all of them seek refuge in the haze of drugs.
Author Jeet Thayil, a recovering addict himself, brings a certain hallucinatory quality to the writing. Things move fast, people and places step forth, and encounters are sudden and life-altering. The violence in the writing is disturbingly riveting. Consider this, a rape scene:
He slapped her lightly, and she moaned. She liked it.?… Then he hit her again. She grabbed his hand, and he punched her on the head … he screamed words he didn't know, and by now she was screaming, too, in fear, and so, to shut her up, he hit her in the mouth, drawing blood, and the sight of it pushed him over.?...
Bombay has been the muse for several generations of writers, from Salman Rushdie's epic Midnight's Children to Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram. The metropolis has always been the star attraction of the Indian literary scene, its cast of poets, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, and other lowlifes providing an interesting backdrop to the glossy business capital of India.
Thayil is particularly good describing the Bombay of the 1970s, a city very much part of old India, yet relishing the trappings of newfound wealth and status. The hippie culture, captured remarkably in some Bollywood movies (Hare Rama Hare Krishna is one), revolves around the high-quality opium pipes that Rashid offers his customers. The book pays rich tributes to Bollywood superstars such as Amitabh Bachchan and to Bambaiyya slang, which is liberally sprinkled throughout.
For all that, the danger with a novel that fills its space with characters whose professions give their voice a raw energy is a tendency to sacrifice plot for tidbits that shine. Thayil, a well-regarded poet, commits this error, or should one say blunder, with this, his first outing as a novelist. There are many, many riveting voices, but they all drown in a narrative that lacks wholeness. If the idea was to mirror the drug-addled lives of the protagonists in the writing — as clearly seems the case — the effect turns out to be somewhat muted.
Thayil has a way with words, and his long sentences often sing. I especially loved the wordiness Thayil gives Dimple, the eunuch. Opinionated, headstrong, and articulate, Dimple is delightfully outer. Why might men prefer to bed eunuchs? "They like the dirtiness of it.?… It's all about money. They think eunuchs give better value than women. Eunuchs know what men want in a way other randis [prostitutes] don't, they know men like it dirty."
Narcopolis seems less a novel than jottings from a diary. Maybe books such as this ought to be called something else. They shed all trappings of plot and timeline, but leave you hankering after more, thanks to the dreamlike, poetic quality of the prose.