Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (2012)

The week my PhD scholarship ran out I thought I’d buy something memorable (but affordable) with my last pay cheque. I was expecting something along the lines of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and would have been quite happy with that, as I love those books. But Narcopolis was something a bit different.

Bombay grunge fiction is becoming a sub-genre in its own right. Fair enough, it’s a rather grungy city, though I do love it. Writers on Bombay have commented that it is a character in its own right, that it is impossible to just set a story or a novel there, that it must be given an existence of its own. I don’t think Thayil quite achieved this in Narcopolis, though it seems that this may have been his aim, in naming his book what he did. The city itself doesn’t really have much pull over the characters, it is just the backdrop for events–references to Colaba, the Haji Ali mosque, and so on.

I couldn’t quite get into Narcopolis, though I do not want to claim it’s a bad book, it’s just completely contrary to my personal tastes. There was something unpleasantly masculine about it. Novels revolving around drug addicts do have a tendency to alienate me, but it was more than that- the constant sexual violence was also very off-putting. I am not making the mistake of conflating Thayil’s personality with the personas he depicted, and I do think he is a good writer. I just didn’t like the story, the themes, or the characters. Reading this book was a bit like watching Pulp Fiction, and I don’t like that film. It just gives me the creeps.

Narcopolis has been short listed for this year’s Booker Prize. I can see the connections between this and The White Tiger, though they are very different books, and I’m not sure I like the implications. Are these novels really the best of contemporary Indian fiction in English? I am doubtful. But, perhaps they’re not looking for ‘best’, but interesting, off-beat. Narcopolis is certainly that.

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Travel writer at Editor, writer, traveller, reader, literary critic.

3 thoughts on “Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (2012)”

  1. I was very surprised at this review. You don’t explain how you are making a connection between Pulp Fiction and this book. Is it only on the basis of the fact that the both the book and the movie ‘gave you creeps’? What was so unpleasantly masculine about the book? Please explain.

    1. Thanks for your comment Mita. I think it was the drug induced violence and sexual degradation that made me think of Pulp Fiction. And by “unpleasantly masculine” I was trying to evoke a sort of sense of a hegemonic masculine degradation of women and glorification of violence. I am not claiming that the author himself holds these views, just that the overall feelings that the characters, plot and themes evoked in me were this unpleasant and uncomfortable sense. I recognise that this is just my own personal opinion, largely prompted by the fact that Narcopolis is rather different from the types of books I usually read, and therefore was not to my taste. I think that Thayil is a talented writer, but I’m just not really a fan. What was your opinion of the book?

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