Saturday 9 March 2013


What is interesting now is that there's no longer just two or three writers but a whole literature. And that literature goes from the very high-brow Amit Chaudhuri to the very low-brow Chetan Bhagat and there's a whole spectrum. ---- Salman Rusdie on the current state of Indian writing in English (interview in The Hindustan Times)

No offence to Chetan Bhagat fans but Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis (Faber & Faber) definitely falls in the category of highbrow literature. Based on the drugs scene in Bombay in the seventies/eighties it takes us through the decadence of the owner (and an addict) of a drug den (Chandukhana), Rashid along with his family (son Jamal) and a few of his close associates (including a eunuch-Dimple/Zeenat) and the clients. The other character which shows a constant deterioration as the story covers a time span of 20 years is the city of Bombay itself where Jeet spent many years trying to unsuccessfully kick off the addiction (which he finally managed to do in 2002 in New York).Hence, the detailing of the different drugs, the accoutrements etc is all very well done and something which I had not read before. (It is surprising that very little literature has come out based on this theme, even though this was an acute threat to our society at one time). I have read some excellent books based on Bombay in the past (Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Beautiful Things by Sonia Faleiro and The Last Man in Tower by Arvind Adiga readily come to mind) so the benchmark is already set high and frankly I would not put Narcopolis in the same category. I do not doubt its ltierary merits (It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2012, won the DSC prize at the Jaipur Literary Festival and Jeet is an accomplished poet as well) but as I said earlier it belongs to highbrow literature which is not exactly my cup of tea. I could appreciate its imagination in certain sections but at times it ventured into realms beyond my comprehension/appreciation. I found the track about the eunuch Dimple  who later becomes Rashid’s live in partner Zeenat and her mentor Mr.Lee (who has escaped from Mao’s China) who introduces her to opium particularly engrossing.
Besides the awards, what attracted me towards the book was the excellent cover design which encompasses the theme of the book so well. If there ever was an award for the best cover design, I have no doubt that this book cover would win it hands down. Also the book starts of with an amazing line which captures the decent of Bombay into Mumbai so well-‘Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story....’ .
So if high-brow is your scene, go right ahead!

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