April Book of the Month: “Narcopolis” by Jeet Thayil

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil. 304 pages. The Penguin Press. April 12, 2012. ISBN: 9781594203305. List price: $25.95

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil. 304 pages. The Penguin Press. April 12, 2012. ISBN: 9781594203305. List price: $25.95

“Narcopolis”, the debut novel from jack-of-all-arts and former drug addict Jeet Thayil, is traumatizing. This trek through the underbelly of Mumbai leaves the reader groping through darkness for logic, for refuge from a deluge of drugs, sex, death and despair. And it is for this reason that Narcopolis is so terrifyingly enjoyable.

Like an opium pull, this book is slow. You take it in, at first tentatively, then with urgency. As you work through, sucking hard against sentences that don’t want to go down, you hold the swirling smoke of Thayil’s words deep in your lungs, allowing them to churn within you, to validate the effort it took you to get them there. Just when you’re ready to give up, when the chance for a breath is the difference between you turning the page and not, Thayil leads you into an exhale. Slowly, slowly, the smoke exits your body, but its effects linger in your mind. On the final page, when it’s all finally out, you realize it could have passed faster but you wouldn’t want it to. Like opium to an addict, the pleasure in reading Narcopolis derives precisely from the work you put into absorbing it.

The challenge presented by Thayil is unlike that present in much Indian literature, at least that which I’ve read. The subject matter has been seen before; substance abuse, poverty and religion feature frequently in urban literature, Indian or otherwise. Where Thayil excels, though, is in pushing his narration of issues ranging from sex to castration to suicide to murder to approach the limits of description any sane person could stomach. Thayil seems to taunt the reader, dropping in details that would make anyone’s skin crawl, almost daring you to give up. It is refreshing to read a work that is not meant to be easy. In his ability to disturb and to elevate the reader, Thayil is masterful.

For a first novel, Narcopolis is somewhat astounding. The plot is convoluted, confusing, even frustrating at times. But they storytelling is artistic, almost painterly, and somehow leaves you feeling enriched, despite everything. Not for the faint of heart nor the weak of stomach, Narcopolis swallows the reader much the way Mumbai would a newcomer, without sympathy or guidance.

If this review intrigues you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Narcopolis. The only question remaining is: Are you up for the challenge?

To enter to win a copy of Narcopolis, leave a comment on this review explaining why you would want to read this book by Friday, May 4 at 11:59 p.m. EST. US only.

Amina Elahi is Divanee.com’s Managing Editor. Check out her blog, where she posts words and images that make her think.