Let’s start by saying that the book, Narcopolis rendered me breathless in the initial few pages, out of focus in the subsequent ones and slightly deranged by the time it was over, but I still recommend it for the surreal experience it provides.
The book that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, starts at an opium house with sentences that are long; very long, punctuated and rhythmic. The story is conveyed through printed words but they provide the illusive effect of being set to an invisible music. Quite possibly, they are. Thayil is a poet and a musician and one can make out the rhythm in his writing, though the sound that emits out of the story is more like a disturbing wail. And yet you read on, engrossed, enthralled and addicted. I say addicted because the characters are indeed addicted; all the narrators are opiated and the text, in turn feel psychedelic and hallucinatory; to the extent that some of it rubs on the readers as well. The story can be summarised as- intoxication, voyeurism & vicarious experience of a self- destructive and equally self- absorbed world. It panders to an inner devil in us though we may not want to admit to an inner devil at all. Curiosity is a malady that needs a cure. Few pages in to the book and I wanted to know about Jeet Thayil, the journalist who made it to the Booker nominations, the author who was rejected, trashed and panned by the Indian critics and publishers and yet fretted and worshipped elsewhere. I wanted to see if he resembled his characters and I wanted to hear him speak. I did.
Thayil, the man with the steady gaze and resonating voice speaks with conviction; with a languor that’s evident in his work and in his persona alike. At the Singapore Writers Festival, he read a passage from the book, Narcopolis with a calculated precision. To the discomfort of the audience,the passage consisted of profanities and hard-hitting cussing in Hindi. Thayil, took his time and delivered the crass snatches of filthy street talk in style. The only child in the audience was hurriedly escorted away by the mother while the rest sat, mesmerised. Intermittent and awkward giggles could be heard from the audience, who listened in awe but yet shifted in their seats, embarrassed. To read the book, you have to be immune to the street language and you have to be equally immune to the rules of the known world. Legit takes a new meaning as the story throws you in to a world that exists in darkness, in filth, in puke, in blood and in disgusting bile but yet you read on, unable to let go. It’s indeed, something akin to addiction. The Bombay of the 70’s comes alive, a bit like Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram but unlike Shataram’s clear-eyed wisdom, Narcopolis deals with the bleary- eyed hallucinations.
I liked Narcopolis for the way the words undulate and spin, never in the way expected. The character of Dimple is fascinating. She is a contradiction in herself, the gender bender with multiple names; the plot device. It’s a character that you don’t understand too well and yet empathise with, a character meant to shock and yet feel familiar. After all, pain, delusion and despair remains universal in its appeal and language. Another fascinating aspect of the book, is the way it keeps revealing one character and leads to another; almost like entering rooms with in rooms. The book is surely not a light read and those, easily- shocked should stay away. Those averse to brooding should stay away too, for along with the dark alleys, pimps, pipes, drug addicts and wasted lives, the book delivers melancholy and haziness that clings on to the reader long after the book is done. Thayil, an ex- addict himself takes you through a voyage not easily forgotten and not easily digested……. and yet I recommend the book for the surreal experience it provides and the way it creates a hazy stupor like no other.