Jeet Thayil - Narcopolis (3 stars)

Jeet Thayil - Narcopolis

Bombay-centric social drama with tangible atmosphere but little narrative drive


Narcopolis begins and ends with the word ‘Bombay’. Although several individuals vie for centre stage in poet Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, the main character here is India’s most densely populated city. Viewed as a solemn and dangerous hive, Thayil deftly paints for us a class-ridden and religious-split metropolis where regrets and thwarted ambitions are rife.

Across a period of several decades, we meet a eunuch called Dimple, the enigmatic Mr Lee who assists in a temporary shift of location in the novel to a China in bloody foment and opium den-keeper Rashid. Their connected tales are imbued by a dank sense of looming tragedy, and that promise is wholly fulfilled.

There’s no doubt that Thayil is wholly adept at creating and sustaining an atmosphere of dread as a city and a selection of its people seem to almost wilfully stagnate and crumble. But if a driving plot or captivating storyline is what you need, best look for it elsewhere. And for those who turn off when dream sequences crop up in literature, don’t say you weren’t warned.

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