“Narcopolis” is one of those books that you just know white folk are going to love.
Maybe it’s the narrative tone, full of disjointed but well-written passages that make no coherent sense, or have no place in the larger narrative. Perhaps it’s the way the book (I was going to use the word “story”, but there isn’t any, so let's stick to 'book') dwells exclusively on Bombay’s squalor and dinginess. Whatever it may be, there’s no doubt that Narcopolis is India as the white man sees it. So it’s no surprise that it was short-listed for the Booker, and won the DSC South Asia Literary prize at that schmoozing ground known as the Jaipur Literature Festival.
In that context, I suppose it has a lot going for it. Jeet Thayil’s prose is lyrical at times, and there are pages your eyes glide over like a gull over water, smile on your face, as he describes the sordid little lives of his protagonists.
On the other hand, there are passages so laboured that the mind slows down, grating like the lurch of a Dombivali slow local coming to the end of it’s journey.
A peek it is supposed to be into Bombay’s underbelly of prostitution and addiction, and it does that job well enough. The book covers addicts of all social strata, from Dimple the eunuch hooker to Dr. Lee the once-genteel Chinese refugee to Ramesh the middle-class stooge. Characterisations are spotty at best. Dimple is the closest we have to a well-realised character. Ramesh, or ‘Rumi’ as the writer calls him, is as half-baked as a veg lasagna. The others fall somewhere in-between. The Chinese doctor is an inexplicable distraction without a narrative arc who floats in and out of the story for no discernible reason.
At some level, I wonder if Thayil was trying a con job. Narcopolis could have been a tribute to the Bombay that emerged from the mill worker – labour – management tussles of the eighties into the xenophobic bigotry of the nineties, had the author bothered to think of a story to hold his undoubtedly skilled penmanship together. But it smacks, in it’s way, of a lack of trying. Like a drug-fuelled hazy dream of the addicts it does such a good job of describing, but such a poor job of fleshing out, ‘Narcopolis’ ends up as a mist-veiled, foggy glimpse into a world of a Bombay that once was, and what it became, with it’s few moments of stunning clarity drowned out by the meaningless wisps of brain-dulling languor.
TL;DR: Stray pieces of brilliant writing obscured by tonnes of directionless blabber.