Having covered a dozen picks on my A Year in Books post earlier this week, a #13, my favourite book of the year, was promised.
Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s debut novel was magical, moving and provocative. and I can’t rave enough about how much I loved this novel.
“Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live”
The story opens in the 1970s, in Rashid’s Opium House on Shuklaji Street Mumbai. It reads like a gritty yet languorous hallucination that charts a darkly exotic world suspended in a series of enthralling vignettes. Thayil delves into the existence of his cast of antagonists contemplating life in a grey underground of smokey opium dens and makeshift brothels in a transitioning Mumbai, as heroin and a serial killer begin to entice and haunt the city’s depraved.
The narrator Dom, a returnee from New York traces his opium-addled poet’s fingers along Mumbai’s free fall into chaos and his own, into a drug habit. Dimple, a beautiful and inquiring hijra, who readies the pipes. Grappling with her past, her addiction, the virtue and vice of her sex, life as a prostitute and her relationships to those who inhabit these worlds, Dimple is a graceful and contemplative presence. Rashid, the owner of the khana- a husband, father, and friend to his hijrasi mistress. Francis Xavier the devilish painter. Mr. Ching (whose interlude in the novel takes the reader on an intriguing adventure to Communist China), the owner of the magic pipes.
Thayil dexterously weaves together Mumbai, the lives, insights and addictions of this cast of miscreants.
The artfully disjointed, lyrical narrative is truly literary juju.