For a long time I have been wanting to read Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis. No, this isn’t a case of hero-worship (Jeet is actually younger than me) for a person from my community, but a frank appreciation of a novel which is set in my urbs prima, Bombay. I know Jeet Thayil as an essayer of fine prose and poetry, and even our native places in Kerala aren’t far from each other.
Narcopolis is a many-layered piece about a man castrated to be a eunuch. I guess this is a system that is prevalent in India, only in India, that is. Here we have the eunuchs come to our home and if the child is born with inadequate sexual organs he is castrated to be an eunuch. A eunuch thus castrated can only become a beggar or a sex slave. Nothing could be sadder than a story of an eunuch (nowadays called transgender) in the class- and community-conscious Indian society. The transgender Dimple also works in an opium den set in the seventies when Thayil came of age and what is interesting is his re-creation of those days.
Through his exquisitely crafted prose – having the ring of poetry – Thayil recreates an era that has been forgotten. Those days in Bombay opium was easily available. There was marijuana in every street corner; there were the dons of Dongri who managed the narcotics business with diligence. Today the dons are on the run and drugs aren’t easily available. The opium dens of those days have closed down; the curtains have come down on an era of hedonistic excesses. Commissioner JRF Ribeiro the supercop and his brave men have seen to that.
The author moves easily across boundaries and time lines as is seen from Lee’s – a top-ranking Chinese official – story. Lee is marking his days in Bombay and is Dimple’s customer. Dimple is employed by Rashid in his opium den and Thayil reels out a stream of slang terms which stands for the use and abuse of the narcotic. Rashid is a man damaged by the profession and indulges in excesses of sex and gluttony. He seems like a man beyond redemption.
And, of course, there is the six-page opening sentence which as Thayil says “is a good sentence.” I find nothing wrong in that since Joyce has a page full of outdated degrees and qualifications in Ulysses.
The famous Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair has said that every novel puts across a novel concept, a novel idea, something for the society to ruminate on. I can’t fish out the original Malayalam words, but he said as much. True Thayil has presented the unrecorded past of Bombay as a novel idea of which we may be unaware, but in which surely have played a part.
My only complaint with Narcopolis is that it ends too soon. I would have liked to see some more resolution and closures. I would have liked to read more about Dimple’s life and about Ramesh, Rumi, as he is called. He has some interesting quotes ascribed to him: “This chooth country, this cunt country, how the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs?” But then a novel has to end somewhere doesn’t it?