Choose life. Choose Facebook. Choose your own senators to misrepresent you. Choose not to choose life but choose something else instead. Choose opium.
Indian writer Jeet Thayil at his home in New Delhi on Oct 3 last year.
Okay, so we're not going to advocate opium, but if you want a Trainspotting-eqsue trip down the toilet into the depths of human depravity why not choose Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil's debut novel is as beautiful as it is repulsive, as beguiling as it is bewildering and as heartbreaking as it is infuriating. It's often a great work of art, but it's not always a great read.
From the first sentence (warning, it's a three-page marathon before we get to the first full stop) Thayil transports us to the city formerly known as Bombay. An opium pipe tells the story _ the narrator insists he's simply writing it down _ of Shuklaji Street in the 1970s, a place of drugs, sex, commerce and desperation.
We follow stories from Rashid's opium den, tales that waft like trails of smoke, and try to see kaleidoscopic patterns in what could be pure fog. A purple haze of Indian history, religious and ethnic tensions, and cultural icons colours the novel's background as old ways are destroyed in favour of the new. Steady, reliable Chinese opium is displaced for volatile Pakistani heroin, and the results are dark and deadly. Dimple, a transgender woman traded into prostitution as a young boy, is essentially the central figure around which the male characters swirl. Thanks to a work-related injury she is introduced to Mr Lee and the pain-relief opium provides. She becomes close to Mr Lee as he becomes ill, hearing about his defection from communist China and the tangled way he came to be in Bombay. After his death Dimple moves with the equipment to Rashid's den. Regular customers there include the violent Rumi and the narrator, Dom. Of these, Dimple is the most compelling and the most sympathetic, and arguably the most tragic.
The story is simple enough: from the mid-2000s we look back in time, to 1940s China when Mr Lee made his way across borders in a stolen vehicle, to the 1970s when unrefined heroin flooded the market and ruined lives, and to the later years of rehab and the survivors meeting again to mourn their losses. The plotting, however, is less straightforward, and Thayil's poetic touch is to be credited for the way the different tendrils of each character's stories twist and intertwine.
Narcopolis By Jeet Thayil 292pp 2012 Faber and Faber paperback 395 baht at Asia Books
Narcopolis, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize last year, is far from easy beach reading and requires a bit of concentration. Snatching a few pages here and there while waiting for dinner by the side of the road as ambulances blare past is not an ideal environment. Like poetry, it is best savoured slowly and when you are in the mood.
The novel is hallucinogenic and mesmerising at its best, although a few sidetracks about authors, Bollywood stars and difficult forms of poetry are less interesting. These parts are a little like those conversations you have in a bar, they seem so important at the time but in the clear light of day or the hindsight of a hangover mean little to nothing.
Thayil told The Hindu that "there are things in that book that only an Indian will be able to truly understand". This is certainly true, some sections were lost on me and a few parts didn't quite click.
There are also times Narcopolis seems to choose vulgarity for its own sake, expressing the thoughts that are usually only let out when intoxicated. These are small annoyances; most of the drugs, sex and violence is used to good effect.
The graphic and confronting passages of Rumi's misogynist violence are appropriately sickening, there are moving descriptions of Dimple's beauty and how her body later wastes away, and Mr Lee and Rashid are saddening portraits of old addicts in decline.
The novel, divided into four books, not only starts and ends with the word "Bombay" but with a focus on Dom Ullis, a character who bears similarities to Thayil _ both are born in Kerala and addicts who got clean. Thayil's first novel comes in his 50s, after, as he told The Hindu, two decades of "sitting in bars, getting very drunk, talking about writers and writing. And never writing".
With a debut that has won plenty of plaudits, hopefully Thayil has found a new addiction in writing. Now he's started he shouldn't stop.
About the author
- Writer: Michael Ruffles