Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil – A Review

“I don’t miss you. I don’t miss you when 
I open a window and light fills the room
like water pouring into a paper cup,
or when I hear a woman’s white dress shine
like new coins and I know I could follow
my feet to the river and let my life go
away from me.” 

-Jeet Thayil (To Baudelaire)

Jeeth Thayil is a compelling raconteur of sensory perceptions. Adept in musical expressions, he has several anthologies of poetry to his credit.  He has a unique ability of capturing life at the cusps of dreams and consciousness, memories and yearning, realities and nothingness, life and death.

Having emerged from a prolonged nada of substance abuse, Thayil remains lucid enough to document the ‘secret history’ of Bombay through his first novel, Narcopolis. The outcome is a scorching saga of a city traced through its narcotic dens and whorehouses housing a motley crew of addicts, pimps, prostitutes, eunuchs, drug-lords, murderers and religious fanatics.  He knows the blue smoke inside out and is familiar with the valleys and plateaus of intoxication like the back of his palm. He has observed the chandulis and garadulis in microscopic detail, their execrable lives, their abysmal despair and the many tiers of deaths that they undergo.

The story is told in the voice of Dom Ullis who has been deported from the States for attempting to possess drugs, circa 1970s. Back in Bombay, he quickly finds his way to Rashid’ khana where opium and opium smoking is a cult. He runs into Dimple, a pretty, mysterious eunuch who is a master of preparing perfect opium pipes. She is a also an adept guru who initiates the new customers into the fine art of smoking, “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….”  We learn more about Rashid, an educated Muslim and a Bachelor of Arts and the master of the den, dedicated to finest opium, Bengali, his bookkeeper and other regulars to the place.

Buried in Dimple’s poignant memories is an unloved childhood, her abandonment and sale to a priest by his widowed mother and her transformation into a eunuch, her betrayal of Lee, a deeply suffering Chinese army man who had escaped his torturous country in a stolen jeep. Lee had discovered soon that he had driven himself out of the frying pan into the hellfire of India, a filthy and chaotic land. He had smoked opium to reduce the interminable pain, just like his father. He had taken Dimple into his fold and rescued her from the sickening pain, launching her on the irreversible journey atop smoke pipes. Dimple had graduated well in the intricacies of smoking opium and had moved out of the whorehouse to a room above Rashid’s den.

However, much more than Dimple, it is “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story.” There is a subtle pun packed in the word ‘heroin’ in the opening sentence of the novel, indicating both a protagonist and a substance. Heroin also signifies a sinister transition in the business of intoxication as it overthrows opium, the age-old queen of delirium. The change is accompanied with feral hatred among communities, festering crime, ushering in of turbulent and heinous times that would ravage and possess the soul of the city. Innocent street-dwellers get crushed mercilessly by a psychopath. Hindu and Muslim butcher each other ruthlessly. Dens offer chemical compounds and cocaine laced with rat poison. And instead of smoking exotic opium pipes transfixed in somnambulant postures, the addicts are forced to wait in queues as the Nigerians pass their shit and with it the hidden cocaine vials.

For such a perturbing subject matter, Thayil has pulled a book of sparkling beauty and startling sensitivity in Narcopolis. The book opens with a hypnotic sentence that runs into six and a half pages, effectively vapourising chronological time and space between dreams, conversations and visitations from absent friends, setting up the mood for the rest of the story, tightening the vicious grip. He has drawn undoubtedly from the dark treasure of his personal experiences, but the vividness with which he has described the varied hallucinations, frozen suspensions, mutable liquid nightmares and bubbling despair, puts it alongside prose epics of the highest order. His language is lyrical but intricate, unfolding layer by layer. Narrative is in synch with emotions, languorous when speaking of the blue smoke, leaden when describing nightmares, grisly when dealing with depravity, sublime when courting with reason.

Thayil may have commemorated a way of life in the pages of the book but it is never a glorification of drug addiction. The saddest characters in Narcopolis, Dimple, Lee and his father suffer many deaths in their lives. The first death is to be born unloved and being renounced by the family. Then comes the death by cessation of bodily existence, to be followed by the death when people stop remembering you. Surely, addiction is yet another layer of death that quietly but determinedly eats up the space and fences between life and oblivion. Transformation of Lee’s father into an insect in the days preceding his death is reminiscent of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

Newton Xavier, a legless, heartless painter-poet  of the Narcopolis, sums up the fate of the addicts beautifully, “An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does….Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or at the very least, to not live.”

Author: Jeet Thayil
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Pages: 292


  1. I am awed at the number of books you manage to read and review. This one sounds good. The storyline seems similar to Shantaram even though that is more about the Mumbai underworld. Im going to pick it up. I loved the first three fourths of Shantaram but not the end. If this book has a good end Im sure it will be a treat to read. In fact I think any book about Mumbai is great. It is the city that embraces everyone but tells each person a different secret about itself. Intruiging and exciting!

    1. Narcopolis is a work of breathtaking content and style and definitely a notch above Shantaram. A well written book is always a treat to read regardless of the city it talks about; and every city has a soul. That said, Mumbai is mysterious indeed!

      PS: I am an old book worm. Remove me from a book and I start gasping! 😀

    1. It will leave you a lot richer for experience. And you will not easily forget it. More than the alien world, it is a linguistic delight too!

  2. In the past one month, I have been introduced to so many Indian authors that I have around 107 books in my Flipkart wishlist. 🙂 Adding this one too.

    1. Amit, if you move this one to your wishlist, the score moves to 108 and that is such an auspicious number! I strongly recommend you transfer it to your cart! 😀

      1. Haha! I have! 🙂 The irony is that I am not reading any of those 108 books at the moment. I have gone on a tangent and started the Malazan book of the Fallen. There are 10 books in that series. Once they are over, I will be back to the auspicious 108 list. 🙂

  3. I am more an aficionado of books with a much lighter emotional tone as you may well have understood, Uma! It is a tribute to your writing and reviewing skills that you can make me want to read books like this which I would not even be considering otherwise!

    1. Thank you for the golden words, Suresh! Tribute is due to Jeet Thayil who has managed to capture a grisly theme with such lyricism and intensity.

  4. Uma, just when I had decided I would not read this book, you come up with such an excellently written review. Now my hands are trembling like an addicts as i guide them with great difficulty to flipkarts home page. I have henceforth decided to start a ‘USP’ account to keep track of the amount of money you are going to make me spend on books, all thanks to your reviews! Keep going!

    1. Hola, Kindred spirit! You have virtually described my own condition: I am a compulsive book buyer myself! As for that book account, I feel privileged to extend the line of credit to you….

  5. I read a review of Jeet Thayil’s NARCOPOLIS in Hindustan Times some time back… And today, I read yours— can’t wait to lay my hands on it :))

    Thanks for this wonderful book review!

    1. I will be happy if my review provokes you into ready a highly deserving book. It should go well with the sensitive writer that you are. Thanks for the stamp of approval. 🙂

  6. You may place your trust in Jeet Thayil without the fear of getting shortchanged. The simile invoked by those words are striking indeed. Many thanks for stopping by.

  7. if i continue to read your reviews i might just start reading books. as far as your writing is concerned, well, the master doesn’t need to be praised. you write like a dream.

  8. Sounds like a really intense novel. I usually go for a ‘lighter’ type of novel, but your review has made me want to read this one!

  9. Nice review! Even nicer is to meet a fellow reviewer, who gives so much thought and puts in so much expression while penning the review of a book. I hope to be a regular follower of your blog now. Keep the reviews coming!

    1. Books are complex works. I really don’t know the extent to which I am able to do justice to the books through my sparse passages, but I do try my best. Thank you for your kind words; welcome to the blog.

  10. Nice review, you certainly manage to read a lot of books and review them in vivid detail. This one sounds like a powerfully disturbing novel, though it seems to be written beautifully.

    Once again, another wonderfully written post!

  11. Another beautiful review. You make the books sound so charming. I am amazed how you manage to read so many of these heavy books. I usually need to read 2-3 lighter books (children’s fantasy) for every heavy book I read.

    1. TF, its is the charm of the books that shines across my posts. Books with heavier themes have a spell of their own that traps the readers deep within. Narcopolis has an amazing section on life in China in the 1940s, which makes for an engrossing read, apart from its stunning story. But I have been planning to read some fantasy and science fiction too. Thank you for appreciating.

  12. Another brilliant review! This seems like a very potent, deep and layered book that delves into the dark side of Bombay and its intoxicated characters. And the way you have given us a glimpse of the story’s multi-layered characters and the crests and troughs of their lives is simply superb. As I have said time and again, you are a master of reviews. And this book is unique and I will surely check it out.

    1. Thank you for your confidence in my writing, and the generous praise. It is indeed a deeply layered book, a delight to a sensitive reader. I am sure you will enjoy living in its pages.

      Wish a Happy Diwali to you and your loved ones.

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