Narcopolis – Review

Name: Narcopolis
Author: Jeet Thayil
Year: 2012
Bookhad Rating: ❤❤❤❤


I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay.


Narcopolis begins with a prologue of great size. A seven page sentence which, under normal circumstances would irk the reader, but the sentence, all seven pages of it, peaks his interest instead. The writing in those seven pages is of the highest quality. The transference of the writer’s imagery to that of the reader’s is total. I could smell the fumes, drink in the dark and dank putrid air of the closed room, feel the sluggishness of my muscles and imagine the dull ache in my head as and when I read Thayil’s mastered story telling. Although I haven’t even been near the drugged underbelly of the city that he speaks of, it was a good enough rendezvous for me to at least imagine.

Narcopolis is the story of Bombay during the height of its infamy. The Pathar Maar, the sex, the brothels, the dark secrets of the dirty belly, the drugs, the charas, the ganja and the advent of Heroin. Narcopolis is the story of Bombay told through the views of the few patrons and regulars of Rashid’s Khana, apparently, the best place to get opium. There is Dimple/Zeenat, the eunuch prostitute; Rumi, a drug addict who very difficult to like but possesses a real sharp and filthy tongue; there is Mr. Lee a Chinese General who ran and came to Bombay when his life was under threat from the Chinese regime and then there is Dom Ullis, the narrator who is present in less than half the book.

Thayil, who was an addict himself, described the writing process as “the opposite of catharsis. Catharsis gets stuff out of you. But this put bad feeling into me”, is an accomplished poet and the rhythm is all but obvious in his writings. He disrobes the secrets of the city one layer at a time and we see how the city which was relatively safe, opium addiction in blotches notwithstanding, turns on its own pedigree and how the drugs turned on their sires themselves and started ruining them.

The author makes a point of reference towards Heroin and how it started killing the users, unlike the opium darkness that merely roomed up in the hearts and minds and muscles of the users. The point, however, that I took away from the book was how Thayil has equated the advent of Heroin with the beginning of the end, in a way, and tied it up with Bombay becoming Mumbai. Thayil makes a structured argument how Bombay turned into Mumbai and suddenly it started getting dangerous.

Opium died and Heroin advanced.

The welcoming arms of the city that welcomed Dom Ullis, deported from America, now became a valley where even the age old citizens rebelled against each other and the entire Hindu-Muslim divide-and-rule tactic played havoc with the soul of the city.

As I walk past Kamathipura and Shuklaji Street it becomes difficult for me to imagine what went on behind those dirty walls a decade before I was born. Brothels are still being run there; it is an obvious legacy that the predecessors have left behind for their brethren who occupy those shanties and tiny rooms.

Monika Choudhry, an assistant professor from Tika Ram College of Education, Sonepat makes a good analysis when she says that, “The ingenuity of Thayil’s novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe.” You can read her analysis HERE

I recently had the good fortune to meet the author at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Fest 2015. Though he was moderating the session with Will Self, who is a booker short listed novelist himself, the glimpses of a smart storyteller seeped through.

I had Narcopolis on my reading list since almost 6 months before I happened to meet him. I had even bought the book a month earlier. I was putting it off for later under one pretext or another. 

I’m glad when I was through Jeet’s Narcopolis.


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