Muswell Hill Bookshop

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Published by Faber and Faber £7.99

Stacks Image 28

Jeet Thayil’s ‘Narcopolis’ is set in the seedy underbelly of Bombay or ‘Bumbay’ as the author disparagingly calls it on one occasion and spans several decades. The central character is Dimple, a hijrai or eunuch, a transsexual born a boy but given away to a ‘priest’ in childhood. Dimple undergoes an operation to have the male sexual organs removed. The hiraj are highly sought after in the brothels of the Indian subcontinent. Dimple is different. She is generous, feminine, sexual and philosophical. She possesses an alluring vulnerability and a transcendent wisdom. Rashid, the owner of a local opium den on the infamous Shuklaji street persuades her to leave the brothel where she works and set up in his khana bringing her unique Chinese opium pipes.
Rashid is a family man, on the one level in denial, refusing to acknowledge Dimple’s identity and provenance, inventing an alternative story renaming her Zeenat to explain her arrival and that of the Chinese opium pipes at the khana. However, he falls hopelessly and passionately in love with her. She haunts his imagination. Indeed Dimple is a haunting presence throughout the narrative even when she is not present in the story. She is the fulcrum through which desire and the complicated backdrop of inter-communal and social tensions are explored.
The twin themes of addiction and vulnerability permeate the novel. The khana or opium den is a haven. It is communal in stark juxtaposition to the religious and ethnic hatreds festering on the streets outside. There is something deceptively soothing in the languorous and shared experience of the opium den. There is succour in the ritual of preparation of the pyalis and the promise of oblivion. Ethnic and religious differences are left at the door. Thayil captures well the sense of dread, the atmosphere of threat and danger in the surrounding streets due to the sectarian and inter-communal violence that wracked India in the early 1990’s.
There are revelatory passages on the incapacitating and self-limiting nature of doubt, on the transitory nature of reality and a description of the burkha as a product of the fevered male imagination encapsulating both fear and desire at the same time. The prose has an elegiac quality, the addict narrator Dom on the pipe for the last time recollects over the course of one night a lost and bygone world.
Narcopolis will not be to everyone’s taste. There are opium induced dream sequences akin to magical realism. The author himself was an addict for many years and the narrative bears the stamp of authenticity. The novel took Thayil five years to write and it is his first at age 50. He is an accomplished poet and the lyrical nature of the prose casts its own spell. If you are curious about the alluring, dark and complex nature of India and its teeming masses and the fragile nature of existence in the sprawling metropolis then you will like Narcopolis.