Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil)

– Srikanth Mantravadi

“….my knees dissolved in the anhydride rush that disconnects neurons from nerve endings, obliterates bone and tissue, and removes anxiety by removing all possibility of pain. I thought: If pain is the thing shared by all living creatures then I’m no longer human or animal or vegetal; I am unplugged from the tick of metabolism; I am mineral.”

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is a haze of a book where illusion and delusion wash over reality, sometimes the former consuming the latter and sometimes the latter subsuming the former, to evoke the sort of nihilistic profoundness that so many writers seek to achieve. Thayil writes in short phantasmagorical dreamscapes giving the narrative a fleeting, ephemeral quality and brings the subterranean nooks and crannies of the city to the forefront, the Shuklaji Street with its decadent opium dens and prostitute houses. This is obviously not a complete picture of the city; it is in fact about the overlooked parts of the city; the parts only few know about, most want to ignore and some want to forget. Thayil writes with authority and the book even has autobiographical shades when it shifts to a first person narrative. There is a frankness that can only come when the narrative is in first person and opinionated; as much as I didn’t want to, I ended up making comparisions with another Booker short listed book, The White Tiger, which also had a first person narrative, but made such a spectacle of projecting the Bharat in India. Somehow the descriptions here, although few and far between, of Bombay, across three decades, even in broad brushstrokes, feel more realistic. When Thayil writes about the clamminess of a slum in a matter of fact way, we agree, because, unlike they are for Adiga, the slum and the poverty and the disease are not his muses. Moreover, the writing is original and in its off kilter tangents frequently transcends the difference between prose and verse with its inherent lyricism; something Adiga’s stodgy prose could not even aspire to.

However, around a 100 pages in, I was slightly concerned whether the book was merely a stylistic exercise, a look-how-coolly-I-will-depict-the-state-of-being-drugged sort of a book; the prose version of Kashyap’s kinetic visuals of Dev D tripping in the eponymous movie. But the author slowly builds up human relationships, fragile and subtle ones, that are as much there as they are not, but definite bonds between these addicts and suppliers (who are again addicts themselves) and those around. We start empathising with them; their problems become our own and their dilemmas our own. Towards the end of the book, the prose also acquires a elegiac quality as it quietly laments the loss of cultures swept aside by the tides of civilisation and the loss of people to nasha; these people who had festered in their hallucinations and lived by their primal instincts in their small, little world in the megapolis; a bubble like world oblivious to outside influence – except when a riot happens – and the oblivion in itself. As a pimp observes during one of the umpteen opium fuelled conversations, this book is about people who “got fucked and fucked up.By the end, each one of the addicts is dead, many for the choices they make and consumed by the vicissitudes of the life they lead, except for a couple, in the inexorable sweep of time. This book is also a lot about memory in an unassuming way, a theme it keeps playing on repeatedly, be it in the troubled dreams of the characters or their troubled pasts. All this draws us in. Some of them leap out and it hurts when characters, we develop an affinity to, pass away. When people die, their memories come alive. Narcopolis rises above its material and is a dazzling, haunting read.

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