Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: "Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil

Title: Narcopolis
Jeet Thayil
Penguin Press
Date Published:
April 12, 2012

How I Heard About It: I was selected as a blog-tour host for this book. A review copy was kindly provided by TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

Two Sentence Summary: This book is so expansive and multifaceted that my typical "two sentence summary" will be almost impossible to apply, however... here goes!

"Narcopolis" spans approximately 30 years in the life of a city (Bombay), intricately weaving together the lives of its colorful inhabitants to offer us (reader, outsider) a lens through which to attempt comprehension.  Vacillating between the defined perimeters of opium den, harem, and hovel; between tragedies of the personal, cultural, and environmental; between the lives of scholars, criminals, and children, "Narcopolis" attempts cultural encapsulation through constant flux and a flood of poetic revelations.

Things I Think: An amazing professor of mine, poet Norma Cole, always reminds her students to "be more curious" when reading: look up unknown words, cross reference obscure facts, let the text lead you on an adventure as you move from book to book to gain a more complete level of understanding.  Thayil's "Narcopolis" definitely made me more curious in this way.  Admittedly, my knowledge of Bombay was limited when I encountered this book, and I found myself so inspired by Thayil's rendering of this history that I could not (and still cannot) stop researching the time period he describes. 

As indicated by the title, the urban relationship to drug trade is very much at the novel's heart. While the reader becomes acquainted with most characters through Rashid's, a popular opium den on Shuklaji Street, the darkening times lead to darker addictions; garad (heroin imported from Pakistan) gains precedent in the addicts' circles, and its arrival is accompanied by the darkness of riot and violent persecutions.  Even nature rebels against this seemingly doomed city, as devastating floods make streets like Shuklaji even more unlivable. 

"Heroes, she said, were not always pure in motive and character, sometimes they told lies or they were conflicted and unhappy..." (85)

What particularly impresses me about "Narcopolis" is that Thayil's characters are so genuinely flawed but, simultaneously, so impressive and powerful and full of spirit.  Though the novel's pages are riddled with the horrors of murder, addiction, and abuse, a three dimensional understanding is at all times portrayed: no action occurs without the reader's awareness of its underlying motives.  We see, as the residents of Bombay see, that a "dying city" can elicit a human's most banal behavior, regardless of their efforts to stay strong. 

Favorite Quote: A eunuch prostitute that goes by the name of Dimple is asked why she takes drugs, and responds: 

"It isn't the heroin we're addicted to, it's the drama of 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?"

This so encapsulates the utter despair that constantly underscores the seemingly hedonistic ways of the book's main characters.  

"Narcopolis" can feel overwhelming at times, with its flood of verbiage and unfamiliar terminology and transitions.  This effect can certainly be chalked up to the author's attempt to enact "the haze" that accompanies the opiate atmosphere of Bombay.  Be prepared to approach "Narcopolis" with a desire to hand yourself over to an experience of the unfamiliar, at times a dance of hedonism and, at others, one nightmare of a trip.


Thank you so much to TLC for inviting me to be a host on this tour.  There are still several stops left for "Narcopolis," so to read further reviews be sure to check out the schedule! 


Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

This sounds like an unusual and powerful novel! Glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

Rahul SMS said...

This is not the book for the wishy washy airy fairy cup-o-chai bourgeoisie reader of Indian writing in English. This is for the connoisseur, one who knows the pipe and the tales of the smoke and mirrors of life. The journey into this Parnassus of quickened, heightened, multiplied consciousness in Narcopolis begins and ends in Bombay, with an exciting interlude in China and a mention of New York. It is a journey on the slow train of transgressions, living vicariously the vicissitudes of its inhabitants slipping djinn-like in and out of opiate tunnels of illumination. Dive in and discover the secrets of Dionysian harmonies.