Rhythm and Blues
The title of Jeet Thayil’s novel, Narcopolis, is quite apt. It is a journey through a haze of opium, though the description on its inner flap would like us to believe that it ‘captures the Bombay of the 1970s in all its compelling squalor’. Narcopolis is set in Shuklaji Street, in Bombay’s red-light area, and is narrated by Dom Ullis, a Syrian Christian (a Jacobite, as he terms himself), who comes to Rashid’s den to smoke opium. It is here that he meets a tragic character, Dimple. She is a eunuch in her late twenties who feels middle-aged. She sleeps with customers at Tai’s brothel—customers who are quaintly diverse: from a seth who arrives with boxes of mithai and wants ‘French, no handshake’, to an Arab who wants her to ‘lie face down on the bed while he rubbed himself against her, both of them fully dressed’.
She is introduced to opium (to relieve her of bodily pains) by one Mr Lee who has fled China after witnessing the horrors of Mao’s revolution. After living in Dacca, Calcutta, Cuttack and Amritsar, Lee finally settles down in Bombay, but not entirely by choice. In the first week, he discovers the sea by accident, and from there on, he becomes a Bombay resident. The sea, though, is the only thing that does not disgust him about Bombay. He ends up telling his life’s story to Dimple. And we get to read it because she chooses to tell her story (of which Lee’s life story is an intrinsic part) to Dom. As a result, we get more glimpses of Chairman’s China than of Bombay. So much so that it is almost halfway through the novel that we get the first authentic glimpse of the 80s Bombay: just before pocket-maar Salim would kiss Dimple repeatedly, he would invariably order strong beer: Cannon or Khajuraho.
Dom Ullis as the protagonist of Thayil’s novel is just insignificant. Throughout the novel, we get no insight into his mind. He is just a dispassionate observer who meets people and listens to them. His own voice is so silent that he might have been Mr Singer, the mute character in Carson McCullers’ bestseller The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One even wonders what role Mr Lee plays in the scheme of the novel except that he introduced Dimple to a world where there is no pain, a world where pain is ‘replaced by its opposite, something enveloping that told her she was loved, no beloved: she was loved and not alone’. He dies after he finishes telling Dimple his story. The sole turner in Narcopolis then becomes the opium itself.
Thayil is a decent poet, and he writes well. In his debut novel, thus, we see some flashes of good writing. Right in the beginning, Dom asks Dimple whether it is better to be a man or a woman. To which Dimple replies: “For conversation, better to be a woman, for everything else, for sex, better to be a man.” Or when Lee ruminates over his life and tells Dimple that he had wanted to return to China. And he tells Dimple: “A man who does not return to his native place is like a man who dresses in finery and sits in the dark.” Or how Dimple realises that she had been working in ‘007’ (brothel number) and how ‘giraks’ (customers) came to her because they liked the dirtiness of it. ‘Their desire for her, for sex, was theoretical. It had no reality,’ Dimple observes. On wordsmithery, Thayil’s Narcopolis is quite a feast. But a good novel has to have more than that—a fine plot, for instance. On that count, Narcopolis is performance poetry masquerading as a novel.