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.