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NARCOPOLIS by Jeff Thayil Kirkus Star

NARCOPOLIS

By Jeff Thayil

Pub Date: April 12th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59420-330-5
Publisher: Penguin Press

A tightly packed saga, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, of drug-ruled lives in the back streets of Mumbai, which longtime resident (and former addict) Thayil insists on calling Bombay.

Do not call him Ishmael, though he is a castoff and exile. Of the narrator of this descent into the subcontinental demimonde, we know little, at least at first: A disembodied voice says, “since I’m the one telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now...these are nighttime tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust.” Very well, then. The vampires in question are the denizens of opium dens and brothels in the megacity’s back alleys, along roads choked with feces and animal corpses, with the “poor and deranged.” The time is the 1970s, drifting into later decades, and the narrative spotlight soon falls on one such resident, Dimple, a girlish eunuch who, having grown up in a brothel, is now both a prostitute and a sort of moral center; more important, Dimple expertly packs the opium pipes that are consumed in Rashid’s den, sucked up by an avid clientele. As time goes on, the cast of characters enlarges: One of particular interest is a Chinese exile, Mr. Lee, who has had a dangerous falling out with a prominent leader back home but wants nothing more than to return there, whether alive or otherwise. As time goes on, too, pipes give way to needles, and the city changes its tenor as the drug diet changes, never for the good. Asks Dimple: “Tell me why Chemical is freely available when there are no tomatoes in the market.” The answer: “Because...the city belongs to the politicians and the crooks and some of the politicians are more crooked than the most crooked of the crooks.” Few come into that dark corner of the world willingly, Thayil lets us know, and few ever leave.

Lyrical, poignant and pensive; challenging for its abundant Indian-isms (“She told only one girak that she was leaving, a pocket maar who always smoked at her station.”) but also for its moral bleakness.