Book Review: Narcopolis

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Narcopolis

“Because, said Dimple, it isn’t the heroin that we’re addicted to, it’s the drama of the life, the chaos of it, that’s the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered – why would we choose anything else?” – Excerpts from Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

To be frank, Narcopolis is a complicated and difficult to read novel. The characters are complex, sentences go on for multiple pages, the narrative keeps shifting from one character to another and from one time period to another. Everyone may not like or enjoy it. There were portions of the novel where I lost track of what is happening and had to re-read some pages to understand it fully. However, once you get to know the characters well and get into the flow, the book is an absolute delight. It exposes the filthy and smelly underbelly of Bombay with a brutality that has never been attempted before.

Set in the infamous opium dens of Shuklaji Street in Bombay, it is a story of addiction with the city of Bombay as the protagonist  Supporting characters include Dom – the foreign returned junkie, Rashid – addict and owner of an opium den, Dimple/Zeenat – addict, eunuch prostitute who works at Rashid’s, Bengali – addict and employee at Rashid’s who has an opinion on everything from religion to politics to science, Mr. Lee – the Chinese addict and owner of another opium den, and Rumi – another addict (you get it – everyone is an addict). Through these characters Jeet has drawn a naked portrait of Bombay – ugly and nasty, yet so true. There isn’t any well-defined plot – just an amalgamation of various stories of related characters connected by the drug, the den and the city. Jeet is also a poet and the influence is clearly visible here. This influence has made his writing unique, one of the strongest points of this novel.

Narcopolis is the debut novel by Jeet Thayil. It was nominated by the 2012 Man Booker Prize. In his own words, Narcopolis is about Bombay of the 70’s and 80’s – the city of intoxication, where the substances on offer were drugs and alcohol, of course, but also god, glamour, power, money and sex. The book draws from his own experience as an addict.

PS: The novel is laden with foul language, violence and sexual content. Not suitable for underage readers, or for readers who are easily offended.

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