Spanning the course of a few decades, Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis, guides readers through a dreamlike exploration of Bombay’s seedy brothels and opium dens. Opening with a seven-page stream-of-consciousness introduction, the book then unfolds in four parts. Readers are introduced to a colorful cast of drug addicts and sex workers who live and work in the area, trapped by poverty, violence, and addiction. Over the years, opium is phased out and replaced by the new drug of choice: Chemical (heroin), and the introduction of this new drug wreaks havoc on their small, troubled community.
By far, the most compelling character was Dimple, a beautiful eunuch who initially worked at a brothel, then switched jobs and began working in an opium den preparing pipes for customers. Dimple is a fiercely intelligent person who befriends an aging Chinese man named Mr. Lee, who escaped from violent circumstances in Mao’s China and settled in Bombay with the intention of eventually returning to his homeland. The two grow close, and Mr. Lee comes to view Dimple as his daughter, teaching her Chinese traditions (including how to properly prepare an opium pipe); he leaves Dimple in charge of his legacy. These two characters weren’t the main focus of Narcopolis, but they did provide some of the most beautiful, profoundly heartbreaking passages in the book.
There are other memorable characters, namely Rashid (the owner of the opium den where Dimple works), and Rumi (a businessman whose violence proliferates the book). The book also has a narrator, who drops out of the story somewhere in the beginning, then jumps back in and reveals himself towards the end. The characters, some once optimistic about their future, serve to highlight the endemic issues of racism, sexism, and poverty that has them trapped in the cycle of violence and addiction.
Narcopolis certainly is not for everyone, especially those who are uncomfortable with descriptions of drug use and sex. But if those subjects don’t scare you away, you’re in for a treat. I’ll admit I was a little nervous with the seven page wall of text at the beginning of the book (I’m not really a fan of stream-of-consciousness prose), but Narcopolis proved to be extremely readable while keeping its poetic flair. Thayil’s writing is gorgeous and nuanced, managing to be both dreamy and gritty. It can’t be easy to weave together so many complicated characters in a way that evokes the reader’s empathy, but Thayil pulls it off beautifully.
Narcopolis was released on April 12, 2012 by The Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.