Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is a story that was lurking in him for long, waiting to be told.
The devil, they say, is in the detail. Jeet Thayil packs his book with so many details, that you could practically hear the devil cackling. Narcopolis, you know one chapter down, was the story that was lurking inside Thayil for long, waiting to be told. A story that he embellishes with characters that are flawed from the word go. A story that he tells with devil-may-care abandon. A story that he weaves with the confidence of a man who knows what he is talking about, getting extra precise with details. Whether you want to take a puff of the opium or not, the way it should be done – long clean drags without putting the whole pipe in your mouth, which, by the way, is not polite – you certainly want to take a stroll down Shuklaji Street, next time you are in Bombay.
Sure, there are many books that enlighten the dark side of Mumbai. With Thayil though, you get to imagine the darkness of the city in a specific colour: the Bombay kind of brown. As the story loops through characters, Thayil’s narration taking on a spaced out tone, you could easily come to the conclusion that the author is ‘tripping’. Not so, tells Thayil, sipping his coffee, as dark as his tale. It’s all premeditated, he informs you. He says he rearranged his tale clinically; that he chopped half of it, saving it for his upcoming book; that he hijacked the other intense character he introduced – that of an artist who could have been fashioned on M F Husian – to his other book. You flip the pages back and read through again. You realise what he has done, this time round. But of course, if he had gone on narrating the tale of Newton Xavier, Dimple would not have stood out the way she did. In all probability, Xavier’s craziness would have eclipsed Dimple’s compelling story.
And then you see the pattern all along. Here is this character, a strikingly beautiful hijra, a prostitute and opium tender. Leading an uneducated, low-of-the-lowly lives. And she goes on to talk about her world and its filth nonchalantly, the sadness tinges her observation rather than smothering it; in between she alludes to Anthony De Mello [and his particular work, Prayer of the Frog] Burroughs, Baudelaire, Cocteau and de Quincey. Not really a wonder that she hooks her tentacles deep into the reader. Confident, that he has established the central character, Thayil moves jauntily to others – the man who owns the opium den, Rashid; the rock music listening racist and a serial killer, Rumi; the Chinese opium seller, Mr Lee, whose contempt for India seeps through the pages... but just when they begin to get established in your mind, when you start to give shape to them, Thayil whisks them away and Dimple resurfaces, watching the world go by wryly.
Narcopolis could have done without a few sub plots as well. China tops the list. While Mr Lee fits in perfectly, the bid to trace him back to a small village in China is a bit too loopy. But you can’t have opium without China, points out Thayil, with a shrug.
For Thayil, subtlety is the key. Like a seasoned author, he leaves a trail of ideologies, beliefs and humour, buried in the desires, observations and actions of his characters. You can tell that he’s cackling along with the devil at times, hinting at the snafus that plague our society, daring you to spot it, daring you to disagree. One such gem lies buried in page 286. One of his characters, Rashid, tells about the time when someone tried to pull a fast one by offering him Gandhi’s dentures. Then he goes on to say that he could imagine the newspapers headlines: ‘Muslim drug trafficker buys Ghandi’s teeth.’ The headline is in all caps, and the typo Thayil’s obvious dig at the media that he was a part of not so long ago. Ouch.
Lucid comes to mind, when looking for a word to describe the prose. Again not surprising considering that he started out with poems when he was only 14. He apparently moved onto singing/songwriting, before he ventured into fiction [Thayil is part of Sridhar/Thayil, the indie-act that explores jazz and funk sounds.] Yes, there’s music in Narcopolis. In any case, you can’t set the tale in an opium den in the ‘80s Bombay and not pay ode to Dum Maro Dum: he devotes an entire chapter to Zeenat Aman, ‘the bronze-skinned mini-skirted actress’. But he goes beyond that with Rumi, the rock-obsessed serial killer. He describes his music to decode the craziness of Rumi for us.
You definitely need not sit in front of him in a chic cafe – with the chaos of the city miraculously muted to a faint buzz in the background – to know that Thayil has a huge reserve of confidence in his kitty. His Narcopolis states that loud and clear. In an India where every regional phrase is italicised and paraphrased, he spews words that are Bombay specific, with no accompanying glossary. You want to know what it means, you make an effort. Simple.
Yet, he has obviously gotten across to the international audience. Loudly and lucidly. After all, didn’t Man Booker long-list him?