Purple Haze

Jeet Thayil explores the narcotic-laced margins of Bombay’s underbelly in his much-lauded 
debut novel Narcopolis

By Aarti Jhurani

Published: Fri 22 Mar 2013, 10:40 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 10:30 AM

A story set in bustling Bombay, Jeet Thayil’s debut novel 
Narcopolis — which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year — explores the city’s seedy, drug-induced underbelly in a way that is impossible to put down. Thayil talks about a Bombay which has no place for the stars or glitterati, but one that is cosmopolitan — a fact that comes out in the use of words that are not essentially a part of Indian English.

The novel, divided into four “books”, has a non-linear narrative. Book one beg-ins with the character Dom Ullis coming to Bombay from New York in the 70s, 
and heading to an opium den on Shuklaji Street. The narrative goes into the stories of other characters: Rashid, a married man who is always drugged; Dimple, a eunuch prostitute, castrated at age eight; and an assortment of pimps, prostitutes, junkies and hippies.

Book two elaborates on the life of Dr Lee — an escaped Chinese army man in exile, who hates living in Bombay, but loves the sea. He has a set of ancient opium pipes, which Dimple later trades with Rashid in exchange for opium to smoke. Book three sees the fall of Rashid’s den as heroin comes to town, and takes over. It becomes the drug du jour, and its easy availability only makes things worse. Dimple’s plan to leave the brothel goes up in smoke, and by this time it is the 90s, when communal riots break out in Bombay.

Book four sees Dom’s re-entry into the narrative in the year 2004 (the same year when Jeet moved back to India and star-ted writing Narcopolis) and as he goes to visit his old haunt, he realises the street has completely changed, and Rashid’s den has now been taken over his son Jamal, who is now a cocaine salesman at 
night clubs.

The book, which constantly flits back and forth among the stories of the various characters, never has one narrator — it starts out with Dom narrating the tale, but while he is lost in his opium-laden world, an omnipresent voice takes over, switches over to an old pipe telling the story, and comes back to the anonymous narrator again. Even though this is Thayil’s first novel, he has been published before (as a poet), and his talent comes out not only in the way he masterfully intertwines the stories, but also his play on words (“Bombay is the hero and heroin of this story”, for example) is a delight to read.

Dom is, in a lot of ways, like the author himself — a Christian from Kerala coming back to India after living abroad, and dealing with his own addiction 
issues (the author was an addict for 20 years). The characters in the book are mostly men, who tend to be egoistic, violent and irrational. The only female character, if she can be called that, is Dimple, who is 
referred to as a male before age eight, and then as a female after. The other women in the book — Jamal’s girlfriend or Rashid’s wife, have no real identity, and no voice of their own.

Dimple, the soul of the novel, continues to be gentle, loving and sweet despite everything that’s happened in her life. Even so, the men around her rule her life — she is named after the actress Dimple Kapadia, and Rashid later changes her name to Zeenat, inspired by the actress Zeenat Aman after watching the film Hare Rama Hare Krishna.

The only damp squib is perhaps the inclusion of the “pathar maar” murd-erer, which is inspired by true events, wherein a man would murder the poor by hitting them with a rock while they were asleep. This aspect makes no diff-erence to the story, and could have been edited out.

The novel is not particularly long, but it packs so much within its pages that it is difficult to put it down. A heart-wrenching story, it is told with grace, and it is easy to get lost in Thayil’s hazy world of opium-induced dream-like trance.


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