Author Jeet Thayil says he wrote Narcopolis as a way of reclaiming Bombay’s history
Bombay. Mumbai. Bambai. City of secret yearnings, nascent dreams, timorous memory. Steeped in glamour and restless energy. Swathed in timeless magic and fairy lights. Beneath it all, her heart of darkness. Bollywood and brothels, paucity and opulence, despair and sanguinity, grime and purity—everything is allowed to exist, everyone is allowed to be and therein lies her beauty. Like a woman of the night who paints her face, sheds her skin and shrouds her soul as she flits from lover to lover, Bombay belongs to everyone because she is owned by no one at all.
And poet and award-winning writer Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis pays homage to this city, “It is a love object, a love offering to Bombay and to India. Bombay is my muse here and a central character,” says the author, who is leading the DSC prize-winners tour 2013.
The book, which is set in the drug dens and backstreets of the city, traces this hazy, smoke-encased universe over several decades, “Obviously it’s a long time ago and the dens are all closed now. But the thing about the opium dens is that it was all in one area—the old red light district of Bombay which was also historically the area from which the British East Indian Company and a bunch of Parsee ship-owners of Bombay got together to send opium from India to China. It is this Indo-Chinese opium trade which made Bombay a metropolis, made it the financial capital of India, and made it rich. Except that everybody forgot that this was what the foundation of the city was built on. By writing a novel that uses the opium dens of Bombay and opium culture of Bombay as its heart is a way of reclaiming its history which had almost deliberately been glossed over.”
The world that the novel unravels in a sordid, dystopian one, an antithesis of the glamorous city that many contemporary novelists depict, “It just struck me that what I wanted to read was the low-life of Bombay. I’m not the first writer to do it there — the short stories of Manto for instance are very gritty, very realistic and in that strata of society.”
The book also manages to capture the evolution of Bombay over the years—a retrogressive one in Jeet’s opinion
“For me it will always be Bombay and I go back as often as I can. Yet when I see the Mumbainess of Bombay, I just want to leave in a hurry. It’s like the lunatic asylum has been taken over by the lunatics and all the sane people in charge have been put into the cells. The old Bombay was less brutal. It was slower; there was more space for conversation, friendship, for beauty.
“In fact, the replacement of opium with heroin in the book is a metaphor for the way Bombay has changed. The old world—luxury and grace of opium replaced by the ugliness and speed of heroin.”
The book has won its fair share of accolades and brickbats and Jeet takes both in his stride, “There was a period right after the book was released, before the reviews of the UK and the US came out, when Indian reviewers thought that they should write negative reviews. I don’t think most of them even read the book. They probably just googled each other up because there was a strange similarities between those reviews, they were negative in the same way.
Then the reviews came from abroad and everything changed. It is so unfortunate that we need white people sitting in London and New York to tell us what to think about our culture.
“Which is very sad because there are things in that book that only an Indian will be able to truly understand.”
The stories that weave in and out of the book are those of its central characters — Dom, the part-narrator, Dimple, a beautiful eunuch, her employer, Rashid, the owner of a den, Lee who adopts Dimple and introduces her to opium, Rumi a violent patron of Rashid’s den. The principle narrator, however, is the opium pipe itself—that captures all the thoughts, feelings, dreams, ghosts and memories of its users.
Jeet dispels the notion that there is no absolute linearity in his story, “If you want linearity you will find it. When people say it is plotless, I am always surprised because it means they haven’t read it properly.
“There is a very clear idea of a plot. My definition of plot is like Saul Bellows’, or Martin Amis’ or Dostoevsky’s definition of plot. It’s a literary idea of a plot and digression and circularity are a huge part of this kind of plot. It is about character and place as much as plot.”
“These are the stories that have always interested me, the ones I want to write. If you want a story that is driven by plot there are plenty in the world. I don’t see why I must add to them. Why kill trees to do what has already been done?”