DOM ULLIS, the narrator, opens Narcopolis with heavyduty fist-swinging. His prologue begins with the words “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story,” causing me to spe nd some time wondering about jackasses who act like they’ve lost a kidney every time some Anglophone name goes Indian.
The prologue is a long gob-burst of words, essentially our narrator spraying commas across the page like a teenager who has discovered the existence of spermatozoa. We are introduced to a bunch of liminal beings — the hijra Dimple, Mr Lee, who teaches her opium- pipe skills he has carried with him from China, a thinly disguised version of a famous painter (here named Newton Pinter Xavier), and our narrator, who is a Syrian-Christian and a dropout. Their lives are peripheral to the myth-making and the claims of ownership that we associate Bombay with and offer us another way of looking at it. As Dimple puts it, “The city was an accumulation of small defeats, nothing more, and each new arrival to the city brought his own minuscule contribution to the inexhaustible pile.” The city thus remade has room for an Amitabh film titledPolyester Khadi.
When I first heard excited mentions of Narcopolis a few months ago, I eyerolled because I assumed my friends were going gaga about a rather bland graphic novel with the same title. I was directed to this estimation of Thayil’s book by Faber editor Lee Brackstone: “Narcopolis has more in common with Burroughs, Irvine Welsh or Lawrence Durrell than it does with Salman Rush – die or Amitav Ghosh; it is literally (pun intended) a shot-in-the-arm for the Anglo-Indian novel… a spectacularly addictive opium-driven dream of a novel which, through a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, illustrates the past 30 years in Bombay in virtuoso style.” Anybody who can toss around phrases such as ‘the Anglo-Indian novel’ deserves more than one eye-roll, but I decided to wait for the novel. Having read the book, I conclude that Mr Brac – kstone is a gent given to dribbling — he strays into accuracy just once, at the part where he mentions a cast of X, Y and Z.
Looking beyond the hype-meisters, Thayil is, to be fair, a gifted writer, and easter-eggs a couple of zingy ideas — quarrels, perhaps, with conventional notions of form. One of his characters narrates the story of a poet who creates a form of insane complications, and responds to challenge with the defence that “he didn’t belong to those who may be asked after their whys”, that “he wanted to make a form that was akin to wrapping himself in chains, because within the prison of the form, it was pure exhilaration and freedom to write such a poem”. There is also a long meditation about Blade Runner and planned obsole – scence, and how all of that is a predicti – on of the inexorable short-terming of memory. The antidote is a collective act of memory and lamentation, “to say the whole name, because that was the way to do it”. In this mome nt, Thayil discloses something that moves the novel.
Because Thayil is a writer of no small ability, we must wonder why Narcopolis does not extend to very much more than a few interesting bits. The junkie narratives it has been compared to continue beyond glimpses of an unrecorded sensibility to offering the reader insight and danger in equal measure. This book, alas, dwindles too soon into an experience much like waiting for a really long goods-train to trundle by.