Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Thayil's Booker longlisted novel uses the emergence of heroin over opium as a metaphor for the changes in Bombay/Mumbai. Like a troubled dream, Thayil's poetic style can ramble and narcotic novels are always tricky to pull off but this one works better than many. Think: an Indian Trainspotting.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 9780571275762

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Novels about narcotic substances are notoriously hard to pull off. The challenge is to make the induced events interesting and meaningful to the, presumably, non-induced reader. In Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil pulls this off surprisingly well for me, although it's fair to say that it won't be everyone's taste. It's not a book that the Bombay/Mumbai tourist office will be keen to promote. A cover quotation links the book to a similar vein (OK, that's a poor choice of words in the circumstances) to Trainspotting and that's not far from the mark.

Thayil opens the story in the 1970s in Rashid's opium house where his regulars, including the narrator, in Indian student named Dom, interact with Rashid and the memorable character of Dimple, a eunuch who expertly prepares the pipes. What, for me, makes this successful is that he slowly and gently takes the reader into the depths of the dream-like world they live in. On the surface of the book, it's very much about addiction, to narcotics but also to sex and alcohol, but at a deeper level it's also a using drugs as a huge metaphor for the changes in India over the period from the simplicity of opium, and the long-standing historical links between China and India, to the more damaging modern narcotics of heroin from Pakistan which has a more violent and damaging impact on its users. India remains a melting pot of religion, cultures and wealth throughout but Thayil is suggesting that it is the more modern influences that have made it more damaging and violent. When his narrator, Dom, returns in present day though, he is just as drawn in to the vice as he was in the 1970s, so perhaps little has changed.

Thayil does explore some of the inherent contradictions in Indian life - like the good Muslim who sells heroin while complaining about brazen women - but in many ways you get less of a flavour of India than with the older generation of Indian writers. There's more of a poetic style to the writing than the more traditional story-telling generation of the likes of say Rushdie and Mistry.

It's not perfect - there are some parts that work less well. There's a sub plot about a murderer that hangs around without really going anywhere and some elements are less easy to believe in that others. The hirja Dimple is keen to teach herself to read and by the time the book reaches the present day she does seem to have acquired an unbelievable depth of literary knowledge for example. Then there is Soporo, an ex-addict who ends up working in a rehab centre where he talks to recovering addicts about thirteenth century poetry which seems a little unlikely to me. But then unlikely things tend to happen in India whose strangeness and complexities are as compelling as any narcotic. By focussing on the metaphor of drugs, it's also too easy to ignore the economic and social challenges that have been part of developments in urban India.

Story lines and characters drift into each other with surprisingly good results. The whole thing is like a dream - or more accurately a nightmare - and it's often hard to know where one part stops and another begins. For me some of the best bits are the descriptions of Dimple's life and her friendship with the old Chinese refugee Mr Lee.

This is very much a cast of drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers, gangsters and pimps with the odd artist thrown in for good measure. For some it may lack a strong enough driving force but I think I just may be getting addicted to Thayil's poetic prose.

Out thanks to the good people at Faber and Faber for sending us this Booker longlisted book.

For more from the new generation of Indian novelists try The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer.

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Buy Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil at

Booklists.jpg Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil is in the Man Booker Prize 2012.


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