By Jeet Thayil
Note: Apologies, this blog post is rushed and poorly written due to the fact that my wife and I have just recently had our first child and things are a little hectic around the house. I hope I can figure out how to maintain the quality of this blog over time without neglecting my duties as a father. Let's see.
It's tough to write a different book about India.
Lots of writers write about India. It's one of those mystical locales that was tailor made for story telling with its bouquet of culture, its irrepressible sights, sounds and smells and its rich history, India has been the setting for dozens of novels that have achieved serious critical acclaim. In fact, since 1997 three Man Booker Prize winning novels have been written by Indian novelists and if you go back through the history of the prize you find that, aside from the Indian winners, many of the winning novels were set in India.
But something I have noticed over the years is that every modern book I read about India invariably returns to the same themes over and over, most notably the continuous reverberations of colonialism and a level of navel-gazing that rivals Canadian literature. While they are always well written and interesting, I have been waiting to get my hands on something a little different from the sub-continent for some time. Jeet Thayil's novel Narcopolis is just that book.
While Narcopolis didn't win this year's Man Booker Prize, it did make the short list, and thank god for that. Thayil dared to write a novel about India without resorting to the aforementioned safe themes of his contemporaries. Instead, Thayil's narrative is a gritty, no holds barred view into the world of drugs and prostitution in the slums of Bombay. It is a side of India that is rarely mentioned in the English literature from India. While I'm not sure if I'd want to read a glut of books about opium dens in Bombay, I sure would like to read about India from some new angles.
Fittingly, the novel begins with a seven page run-on sentence and doesn't let up from there. I say "fittingly" because what follows is a dream-like narrative that follows the lives of several noted junkies and prostitutes that frequent the opium dens that were popular in Bombay prior to the 1990s. The story begins in a sort of heyday and the slow demise of the den's popularity parallels the decay of the characters.
Written as a series of entwined anecdotes surrounding Dimple, an opium addict and prostitute in Bombay. Dimple was born a boy but was castrated during childhood and lives her life as a woman. Other characters bob in and out of the narrative and each have their own debauched story to tell. The entire book exudes a certain hazy tone and the novel progresses like the literary equivalent of opium smoke languidly wafting through the air. Often many of the stories drift off into nothingness while others that seem like tangents join with the larger narrative structure and continue on from there. Stories braid themselves around each other throughout and Thayil's style has a lazy, unhurried feel as if he is chewing on the sentences one word at a time, thoughtfully relishing each word and placement in relation to the entire work. The language is debased, vile and at time shockingly graphic, but in the hands of Thayil they are impossible to ignore.
Narcopolis is the first of the 2012 Man Booker Prize short-lister that I have read. For the language alone it is worth the read. Given that it did not win, I am excited to see what may have been deemed better than this carefully crafted work. Furthermore, it's really nice to see some more unorthodox Indian literature getting recognition. Perhaps this means we can expect a run of post-post-colonial literature out of India over the next few years.
One can hope.