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Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil's debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize, although as I recall considered a rank outsider to win.

 

It certainly has the kind of elements that might turn the heads of some prize judging panels. It is stylistically experimental, with a first sentence running to six pages, even longer than it seems in the context of what is a fairly short novel. It is epic in scope, covering thirty years in the history of Bombay's (never Mumbai) opium smoking classes, and examining the lives of a variety of characters, from Mr Lee, who flees communist China's Cultural Revolution and winds up running a drug den, to the wealthy high caste Hindi Rumi, Muslim dealer Khaled and the novel's central focus, eunuch prostitute DImple.

 

Thayil's poetic language suits the dreaminess of opiated states, which is occasionally punctuated by hideous squalor and inventive swearing, much like I imagine junkie life itself must be.

 

The novel itself is appropriately plotless, drifting along and tuning in to the stories of Dimple, Khaled, Rumi, Mr Lee and other denizens of Bombay's Shuklaji Street. As a backdrop, we see the city's transformation from 1970s stop on the hippie trail to the dawn of the 21st century, with call centres and night clubs infiltrating the street. Opium moves onto the more damaging heroin and from there to the shiny modernity and narcissism of cocaine. If one wanted to stretch a point, one could argue the changes in Shuklaji Street are meant to reflect the changes in India as a whole during the time span the novel depicts. 

 

Narcopolis is probably not a novel for everyone - steer clear if strong language, filth and hard drugs are not to your taste - but has many seductive qualities.

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This was my review of Narcopolis at the time:

 

 

 

Narcopolis begins and ends in Bombay. I suspect that, in the middle, Jeet Thayil had hoped to create a Bombay epic. It is probably not substantial enough to achieve that ambition, but is an interesting and quirky look at Indian life through an opium cloud.

The novel is bookended by the narration of an American dopehead, Dom Ullis, who first visits Rashid's opium den in the late 1970s or early 1980s - time is fairly unspecific - and returns some 20-30 years later. He is intrigued by some of the characters he meets, most intriguing of whom is Dimple, a woman who used to be a man. Dom's sections are not terribly lucid; they drift in and out of focus; they have psychobabble wittering; they have the detachment of a tourist who knows that he won't really be touched by anything he sees or does.

The more interesting sections are the central "meat" of the book. We uncover elements of Dimple's story and those she encounters. Hence we get the story of Mr Lee, a Chinese man who has fled the cultural revolution. We half discover how Dimple came to be castrated and ended up working in a brothel. We have the story of Rashid and Rumi and a host of other minor villains. As the stories converge on Rashid's den, they start to contradict as much as they overlap The lucidity with which we see Dimple's earlier life and Mr Lee' story of flight blurs into a smoky haze.

This could all have been a bit of a disaster were it not for the engaging brilliance of Dimple. She suffered abuse and humiliation, yet she plied her trade trade in brothels and drug dens with detached dignity. She intrigued both clients and employers alike. Yet for all the charisma, for all the victimhood, she is not quite angelic. She is willing to lie, cheat, steal and perhaps more to get what she wants.

****0

 

I was surprised it ended up on the Booker shortlist. I was rather generous with my thinking, swayed perhaps by having bought the book before it was Booker listed and wanted to persuade myself I had found a gem under my own steam. It was actually quite hard going at times.
 

Edited by MisterHobgoblin
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