Narcopolis is a bad trip and Jeet Thayil wants it that way

Isn’t the cover gorgeous though? by Jimmy Zombie (

I feel a bit more kindly towards Narcopolis (very little) after finishing it, in the sense that perhaps I now understand what he was trying to do, also comprehension has dawned as to why the hullaboo off shores about this book. Like the amazing Chinaman last year, which mimics the stages of a cricket test match, even the way in which the writing guides the reader into a certain mind state through the book. One gets it, this is what Jeet Thayil is out to do, this is one long pull off an opium pipe – that is how one gets guided into the book, a prologue of one sentence. A seven page long sentence. And that is the best piece of writing in the book. In that, it sets up everything, your possible reactions, how you should read it (slow, repeated puffs). And that is how the book is constructed. If you took a good, long puff at the prologue, you would be well into the narrative (if you can call it that) before you realize that this isn’t a very good trip after-all. That is why the continued bewilderment of where the narrative is going, continued chapters – pages after pages of disembodied dreams, disconnected from everything, just a vague bloody fog page after page. What the fuck is happening? What am I reading about? Didn’t I just lay down in a khana in Shuklaji Street with an Opium pipe? Why am I reading about this Chinese man? Where the fuck did he come from? And it irritated me. The fact that that is not a random occurence. That the author knows the lay mind’s connection between opium and china. So just like that, that is a major character. Whether you like it or not. You have just taken a puff of opium and you don’t like what is happening to you. You are not supposed to. You don’t like these dreams, and these vague shapes, and this dirtiness, and there’s a whore, and she’s a hijra, and oh fuck the shame, here take a puff, this is so literary and raw.

Excerpt from Chapter 4 : Mr. Lee’s Lessons in Living

[Lee dreams]  Then he heard drums, jungle drums, and he thought of witch doctors and the image of the great junk faded to violet mist. He heard the sound of surf and he heard someone speaking or cursing in Hindi. Your mother’s cunt, the voice said. Or the voice was saying someone’s name, Marky Chu.

I understand why to the lay and uninitiated foreign  reviewer, the below would seem to be the case. (this sentence is the first thing that google flashes at you if you punch in Narcopolis)

Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated.

Subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebratedGulp! Definitely going to be a couple of sessions called that in the next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

These are dirty, ugly characters with nothing to flesh them out from each other. Random chapters start with a different “I”, protagonists move from page to page before you can say uh, hello and one doesn’t feel any different in inhabiting a different character from one page to another. One doesn’t really care either. Oh the motherfucker is dreaming again. And yes, he/she/it is high, and the dreams must mean something.

A character in the book gets one another addicted to a new maal called Chemical. It is garad (dusted heroin, brown) that the local dealers mix with rat poison. The strychnine in it is what gives you the real kick. It’s the shit, in that the first sampler just dies, boom.

For the lack of a better word imagery, that is what this book feels like to me. Very artificial. Very Chemical. Not organic. Not felt. But constructed. That is the feeling I get. Of pretense. Of slimy pretense. For aggrandizing and self profiting.

It is a carefully constructed book, however it doesn’t take out my initial and continuing distaste with the writing. It is carefully constructed for a reason, to appeal to a certain populist wildness. While one might rightfully argue that fiction has a right to be well, Chemical and they would be right.

I still do not feel empathetic towards the writing, nothing for the characters, not even disgust, just nothing. Immediately after finishing the book this morning (I had a little tenderness in me for the book by then, well constructed that it was), I returned back to the beginning and read the prologue again and skimmed through most of the first half of the book again, now that I knew how the plot went by the end. Still, nothing.

Just a bad trip. And Jeet Thayil knows it is a bad trip, and he wants it to be a bad trip because aren’t dirty bad trips set in Bombay literary? Oh my, here, take another puff.

The primary reason I am pissed about Narcopolis is that it takes the name of Bombay in vain. It has been common in the past few years to read a stellar few Bombay books where Bombay is an essential part of the book, think Love and Longing in Bombay or Maximum City or even the sublime Death in Mumbai, where the book is what it is because it is Bombay, and you feel it pulsating as a background. In Narcopolis, he names the book after Bombay (as if invoking Shiva and Bombay together!!!), starts and ends it with the word

Excerpt from book, ending last line

Late that night, after my neighbours had gone to bed, I cleared a space in the small room and set up an oil lamp and the pipe. This is the story the pipe told me. All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.

From this review on the Independent, by Salil Tripathi

If you were to write a story set in Bombay, as the poet Jeet Thayil prefers to call the city now known as Mumbai in his outstanding debut novel, you don’t have to work too hard. Much of it can write itself if you connect the dots of history: a city made of islands reclaimed by the British, a polyglot culture where all of India’s languages, faiths and castes mingle, where the prevailing currency is money and its dreams are told, nay, sung, in those schmaltzy, kitschy Bollywood movies, and which lives on an edge, periodically blown up when terrorists set explosives, but returning to life the next day, resilient and resigned.

The ingenuity of Thayil’s novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society.

Ahem. Jeet Thayil is also quite aware of this tendency of the literary world to romanticize Bombay. From this interview here in The Hindu,

Bombay seems to be the sure shot way to make a best-seller these days. There is something vicarious about juxtaposing a thousand squalid slums with a thousand big dreams and it sells. “When you walk around Bombay, especially around Colaba, Victoria Terminus, Fort and Flora Fountain areas, the buildings there reek of history. There is so much beauty, that the feeling you experience is a kind of love. It is a terrible city as well in many ways, there are too many people, the weather is awful, but there is something about it,” he says.

Narcopolis has all the makings of a best-seller, with maybe even an award in the pipeline. Eye-catching, retro cover art by Jimmy Zombie, long, poetic sentences, with just the right number of pages and a sordid story that comes around in a full circle leaving no loose ends. “An award was not on my mind when I was writing it. I have been working on the book for a while now. When I started out in 2004 it was non-fiction, but soon the story started to grow heads, limbs and declared itself a novel. This was a 600-page book that I put everything I had into, and then had to go back and change and cut for a leaner, meaner version.”

Leaner, meaner version? Admittedly the book turns in at about 300 pages, but how laborious are those pages. I couldn’t quite understand it at times. This was a Bombay story, a drugs and Bombay story, how could this be hard work, how could this be slow plodding? I have read quite a few landmark drug books this year, TrainspottingMoth Smoke, and the sublime The Corner amongst them. This must count as tough company to compete amongst, yet Narcopolis doesn’t even begin to try and feels all the more smug for being that way.

I must confess to having sat across Jeet Thayil in poetry reading sessions long back and not liking him or his poetry. I must confess to a prior distaste to the book before picking it up, but decided to give it a fair read nevertheless. It didn’t help. And then I have been thinking, perhaps I am being too harsh?

And then I read Jeet Thayil’s interview on PublishingPerspectives, and he’s still at it. Sample this.

PP: Because of the subject matter, some readers have compared your book to Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eateror William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. Who would you cite as your influences as a writer, including both Indian and non-Indian authors?

Like everybody else, I’ve had different influences at different stages. During the writing of Narcopolis it wasn’t drug literature I was reading, I finished with that in my teens and early twenties. I was reading the Russians, particularly Dostoyevsky, and most particularly The Brothers Karamazov. In some ways,Narcopolis is a Russian novel, in other ways it is American. But only an Indian could have written it.

When you say only an Indian could have written it, are you referring to some aspect of “Indianness” that goes beyond the novel’s placement in an opium den in Bombay?

I mean the insider information about Indian society that comes from observation and participation. Also, I think there’s a kind of familiarity bordering on contempt that only Indians seem to feel about their own culture.

There are many characters and elements in Narcopolis that I could see as being controversial to Indian readers, though probably not many Western ones. Has Narcopolis been well received by readers and critics in Bombay and India more broadly?

I knew Narcopolis would not find its readers immediately. I expected an adverse reaction in India, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as adverse as it has been. There’s a new prosperity and a new jingoism here that doesn’t account for dissenting views. The rich have become richer and the middle class has expanded, but the poor, who outnumber everybody else, have stayed poor. This is something the middle class prefers not to think about. And they certainly don’t want it written about in a book that might be read by people in other countries.Outlook magazine said: “Sleaze sells India like nothing else can. So Narcopolistries.” A newspaper called DNA said it was “one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere.” And Tehelka said the book was “like waiting for a really long goods-train to trundle by.” Interestingly, the bad reviews were only in India, even the Pakistanis have been more generous.

Do you feel your book fits into the large body of Indian novels that have also been published successfully in the United States over the past two decades by authors like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy? How so?

I don’t think Narcopolis belongs to a school of Indian fiction. There are superficial points of commonality, but the milieu in my novel is as far from the world of middle-class Indian writing in English as it is possible to get. Which explains the apoplectic response of reviewers.

Do you feel there is any precedent for the publishing of a book likeNarcopolis?

Plenty of precedent in the United States and in Europe, but none at all in India.

Wow. Just wow. Perhaps there is a reason to the volatility he is inspiring.

From Ashley Tellis who has spared no imagery in the DNA review,

After consolidating his reputation as an arch and bloodless poet, a singularly untalented musician and performer, and a wayward anthologiser, the indefatigable Jeet Thayil turns his hand to fiction and produces (surprise, surprise) one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere.


If the opium pipe speaks and dictates the novel, that justifies the wayward narrative, the characters picked and dropped summarily, the piling up of non-sequitur non-stories, the gratuitous violence, the sexist absence of even one developed woman character, the lack of any continuity and building of narrative depth.

While perhaps all of this makes perfect sense to the narrator, it certainly does not to the reader, and the prose does not emanate from the irrational or the hallucinatory or the surreal. This is not just because it is incredibly difficult to write about induced states in a way that makes them interesting to a non-induced reader.

It is primarily because Jeet Thayil’s shallow, pretentious, pseudo-erudite, gratuitously arcane authorial persona invades the narrative and never lets it go. 

From this comment here,

Narcopolis starts off wonderfully, with the 6 page stream of conciousness. The first half of the novel follows the lead with memorable charcters [Dimple, Mr Lee, the painter], wonderful writing and seems to be raising it’s game towards the ‘bigger picture’. But after Mr Lee’s story finishes about half through the book and the Hubert Selby Jr-esque downfall begins, the book loses ideas and, unfortunately, is is ultimately disappointing. It could be said that that is the point – any drug novel needs a downfall/ comedown to reflect the drug experience. Opium is replaced by Heroin and Cocaine, the culture diminishes, the lives crumble and this is reflected in the story. I feel this is cliched, and in the early parts of the book the writer shows evidence that he could have circumnavigated the obvious and gone towards a more original conclusion.

Thayil mentions at one place that there is no message to the book, at another that he wrote the book “to honour people and places I knew”. If it is true that the book is partly autobiographical, and this is his unintended homage to those years, it is a very cheap one to their memory.

However, that is my perception, and decidedly colored as they exist. I will link to three things that refute mine, the first two reviews that have spent sometime underlining what they liked about the book.

First, in the Guardian (this is the review that has been comparing the book to William Burroughs’s Junky, or Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater),

Thayil is right on the money to his intended audience

We move onward with the years. Hippies arrive and begin to appreciate the quality of Rashid’s opium, the attention to detail in pipe preparation, the warm cocooning charm of it all. This is an India that itself was dreaming, wrapped up in Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and simplicity, ignoring the tsunami of change that would not strike until the 1991 economic liberalisation. I was in Mumbai in those days, on my first trip to India, sleeping in shoddy dives and living on cheap street food. He pins down that world perfectly; he even pins down us shabby western travellers with a few painfully precise words: “interloper[s] from the future come to gawk at the poor and unfortunate who lived in a time before antibiotics and television and aeroplanes”.

The second review is a patient, literary review of Narcopolis in the South Asia journal, Sarah Van Bonn has lovingly put it together.

The third thing I want to do is excerpt the opening prologue of the book here, which is without doubt the best thing about the book. It has already excerpted online here, so I do not feel bad about reproducing it here.



Something for the Mouth

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s 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, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight like vampire dust – wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world – and now we’re getting to the who of it and I can tell you that I, the I you’re imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone’s voice, trying to remember what it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country, because that’s what it is, not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to, which is why I’m trying to remember how it was that I got into trouble in New York and they sent me back to Bombay to get straight, how I found Rashid’s, and how, one afternoon, I took a taxi through roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary in their bare feet and air of abandonment, I smoked a pipe and I was sick all day, hearing whispers in my stone sleep about the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, who worked the city at night, whispers that leaked upward from the poor, how he patrolled the working-class suburbs of Sion and Koliwada and killed them while they slept, approached those who slept alone, crept up to them in the night and killed them, but no one noticed because his victims were more than poor, they were invisible entities without names or papers or families, and he killed them carefully, a half-dozen murdered men and women, pavement people of the north-central suburbs, where the streets are bordered by effluents and sludge and oily green shimmer, and all that year he was an underworld whisper, unknown to the city’s upper classes until he became a headline, and in my delusion I thought I understood his pity and terror, I thought I knew him as a Samaritan, a pure saviour of the victims of a failed experiment, the Planned Socialist State of India, he was trying to end their misery, the Pathar Maar, he was on a mission to wipe out poverty, or so I thought, sunk in my own poverty in the back of the taxi, slumped against upholstery stained a Bombay shade of brown, telling the driver to slow down as we drove past the women, and I saw, I swear I did, the face of a maid who looked after me when I was a small child, a dark woman who smiled sweetly when I hit her, and I knew it was her, washed up in the dead-end district where the women were graded, were priced and displayed in every street and gully and house, women from the far north, from the south, from all over, bought new and used, sold or given away, bartered, almost free, I knew it was her but I didn’t stop and the taxi slowed to a crawl behind a jeep with a printed sign, GOVERNAMENT OF INDIA, and when the driver found the address I’d given him for Rashid’s he assumed I was going to the cages, the cheapest rooms on the street, where the women were five rupees and upwards, and he pointed to the houses with numbers printed on the window boxes and said, ‘Number houses better,’ nodding at the streetwalkers and the women in the cages, ‘these girls dirty,’ as I stepped out of the cab and into chaos because a buffalo cart had broken down and a crowd was quickly gathering to watch the animal kneel in the narrow road as the carter whipped it in sharp methodical bursts of fury, though otherwise he was calm, he didn’t curse or sweat as his whip hand rose and fell, rose and fell, slabs of ice packed in sawdust melting in orderly rows on the back of the cart, and everywhere the poor and deranged waited and watched, as I did before climbing the stairs to the first-floor address I’d been given, to stand at the doorway and take it in, a smell of molasses and sleep and illness, a woman tending the pipe, using a long needle to cook the opium, her hand moving as if she was knitting, a couple of smokers lying on pallets, an old man hunched over a stove, inhaling as the opium bubbled, everything in the room happening on the floor, sleeping mats and pillows folded or spread, a calendar on the wall with a photograph of a mosque – listen, stop there and light me again, or let me do it, yes, ah yes, now that’s it, lovely, such a sweet meditation, no, more than meditation, it’s the bliss that allows calm to settle on the spirit and renders velocity manageable, yes, lovely – and now, in the same city, though it’s a lifetime later and here we are, I and I, which isn’t said in the Rastafari way to indicate we, but to separate the two I machines, the man and the pipe, the who and the who, telling this story about a long-ago time, when I smoked a pyali and I was sick all day, my first time on Shuklaji Street, new to the street and the city, separated by my lack of knowingness, by the pace of human business on the sidewalks and shops, knowing I didn’t have the skills, my gait too slow, paying too much attention to the wrong things, because in my head I wasn’t all there and the partialness, the half-there distractedness, was apparent in my face, people looking at me and seeing jet lag, recognizing it as a spiritual deficiency, and I went into Rashid’s room, placed my head on a wooden pillow and stretched out, trying to get comfortable, realizing with some surprise that the old man who was nodding over the cookpot was speaking English, speaking to me in the language of a death-mad, religion-obsessed country of living saints, asking if I was Syrian Christian, because he’d noticed the Coptic cross around my neck and he knew Roman Catholics wouldn’t wear that kind of cross, and of course he was right, I was Syrian Christian, a Jacobite, if you want the subsect of the subsect – so good, this good smoke, the last smoke from the last pipe on the last night of the world – the old man, whose name was Bengali, saying, ‘Ah, in that case, perhaps you can answer a question that has been troubling me, I mean the particular way Christianity caught on in Kerala and how Kerala’s Hindus, instead of adjusting themselves to Christianity, adjusted Christianity to themselves, to the old caste divisions, and, this is my question, would Jesus have approved of caste-conscious Christianity when his entire project was the removal of it, a man who fraternized with the poor, with fishermen, lepers and prostitutes, the sick and dying, women, his pathology and compulsion to espouse the lowest of the low, his message being God’s unconditional love, whatever one’s social standing?’ and what reply could I have made when he wasn’t expecting one, was already nodding as I watched the woman, watched Dimple, and something calmed me in the unhurried way she made the pipe, the way she dipped the cooking needle into a tiny brass pyali with a flat raised edge, the pyali the size of a thimble, filled to the brim with treacle, a liquid with the colour and consistency of oil, and she was rolling the tip of the needle in the opium, then lifting it to the lamp where it sputtered and hardened, repeating the procedure until she had a lump the size and colour of a walnut, which she mixed against the bowl until it was done, then tapped the needle against the pipe’s stem, indicating to me that my smoke was ready, it was, but the pipe was too long, I couldn’t manage the heaviness of it, and though I sucked when she held the bowl to the flame, the mouthpiece was too large, the taste too harsh, and when the pipe clogged she took it briskly away to apply the needle once more, saying in English, ‘Smoke, pull hard,’ Rashid saying, ‘Watch Dimple, she’ll show you,’ and she did, shaking the hair out of her eyes, expertly and elegantly fitting the pipe to her mouth, taking a long clean drag, the smoke seeming to disappear, so when she gave me the pipe I was very conscious that it had been in her mouth, and she said, ‘Pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop, because if you stop, the opium will burn and there’s nothing you can do with burned opium but throw it away, so pull until you can’t pull any more,’ and me, in my ignorance, saying, ‘Do I take a single continuous drag?’ ‘You can, but then you have to recycle it inside your lungs, better to take short pulls,’ ‘How long should I hold it in?’ ‘So many questions, it depends how much nasha you want, hold it as long as you like, but don’t put the whole pipe in your mouth, not polite,’ and I said, ‘Sorry,’ and quickly moved the pipe away and brought it back to my lips with care, fitting it carefully, taking my time, understanding that opium was all etiquette, a sense rhythm that centred on the mouth and the way you held the pipe in relation to your body, a lunar ebb and pull of smoke that filled first the lungs and then the veins, and when I looked up she was smiling and so was Bengali, and Rashid said, ‘Here people say you should introduce only your worst enemy to opium, maybe Dimple is your worst enemy,’ and I was thinking maybe she isn’t, maybe I is, maybe the O is the I and I is unreliable, my memory like blotting paper, my full-of-holes, porous, shreddable non-memory, remembering details from thirty years ago but this morning a blank, and if memory = pain = being human, I’m not human, I’m a pipe of O telling this story over the course of a single night, and all I’m doing, the other I that is, I’m writing it down straight from the pipe’s mouth, the same pipe Dimple made the first time, but that story’s for later – okay, here we go, we’re coming to the best part now, the dreams which aren’t dreams but conversations, visitations from absent friends, a raucous procession behind your closed eyelids, your awake and dreaming eyes, and sometimes a voice wakes you, your own voice talking to someone who isn’t there, because you’re alone, on your back, sailing the opiate sea, no, I’ll pass this time, I’m fine, oh yes, beautiful even – the same I who, when they put me in jail, noticed the cell wasn’t much smaller than the room I was living in at the time on the Upper East Side, when they caught me buying dope, stoned on downers, and the white cop pulled his gun and chased me down the alley and I saw the dead end and turned, reaching in my pocket to give him the baggies, and the cop didn’t shoot, for some reason he didn’t shoot, he put me in a van and took me to jail, where, as I say, the cell was the size of the room I was living in and I was happy enough to be there and alive, and later I was sent back to India and I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay – okay, time now for a short one, the night’s almost over, a short one to keep the O boat sailing on its treacle tide, and this time all I’m going to do, I’m turning my head and inhaling, you do the rest – and ever since I’ve tried to separate the one from the other, or not, because now I’m giving in, I’m not separating but connecting, I’m giving in to the lovely stories, I’m lighting the bowl, one for me and one for me, I’m tasting it one last time, savouring the colour and the bouquet, the nose of it, yes, like that, so good, and then I’m stopping, because it’s time now to subside into silence and let the other I speak.

One thought on “Narcopolis is a bad trip and Jeet Thayil wants it that way

  1. Pingback: 2012 Stories : The Reading Flow | Gonzo

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