by Jeet Thayil


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Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Written in poetic and affecting prose, Jeet Thayil's luminous debut novel charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis across three decades. A rich, hallucinatory dream that captures Bombay in all its compelling squalor, Narcopolis completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. It is a book about drugs, sex, death, perversion, addiction, love, and God and has more in common in its subject matter with the work of William S. Burroughs or Baudelaire than with that of the subcontinent's familiar literary lights. Above all, it is a fantastical portrait of a beautiful and damned generation in a nation about to sell its soul.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780571275762
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication date: 02/28/2012
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jeet Thayil is the author of four poetry collections, including These Errors Are Correct and English and is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. As a musician and songwriter, he is one-half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil. He lives in Delhi, India.

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Prologue: Something for the Mouth

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I'm the one who's telling it and you don't know who I am, let me say that we'll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there's time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I'll have to stop, these are nighttime tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust—wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid's when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world—and now we're getting to the who of it and I can tell you that I, the I you're imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who's writing these words, who's arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn't the I who's telling this story, that's the I who's being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid's, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone's voice, trying to remember what it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country, because that's what it is, not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to, which is why I'm trying to remember how it was that I got into trouble in New York and they sent me back to Bombay to get straight, how I found Rashid's, and how, one afternoon, I took a taxi through roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary in their bare feet and air of abandonment, I smoked a pipe and I was sick all day, hearing whispers in my stone sleep about the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, who worked the city at night, whispers that leaked upward from the poor, how he patrolled the working-class suburbs of Sion and Koliwada and killed them while they slept, approached those who slept alone, crept up to them in the night and killed them but no one noticed because his victims were more than poor, they were invisible entities without names or papers or families, and he killed them carefully, a half dozen murdered men and women, pavement people of the north- central suburbs, where the streets are bordered by effluents and sludge and oily green shimmer, and all that year he was an underworld whisper, unknown to the city's upper classes until he became a headline, and in my delusion I thought I understood his pity and terror, I thought I knew him as a Samaritan, a pure savior of the victims of a failed experiment, the Planned Socialist State of India, he was trying to end their misery, the Pathar Maar, he was on a mission to wipe out poverty, or so I thought, sunk in my own poverty in the back of the taxi, slumped against upholstery stained a Bombay shade of brown, telling the driver to slow down as we drove past the women, and I saw, I swear I did, the face of a maid who looked after me when I was a small child, a dark woman who smiled sweetly when I hit her, and I knew it was her, washed up in the dead-end district where the women were graded, were priced and displayed in every street and gully and house, women from the far north, from the south, from all over, bought new and used, sold or given away, bartered, almost free, I knew it was her but I didn't stop and the taxi slowed to a crawl behind a jeep with a printed sign, government of India, and when the driver found the address I'd given him for Rashid's he assumed I was going to the cages, the cheapest rooms on the street, where the women were five rupees and upwards, and he pointed to the houses with numbers printed on the window boxes and said, "Number houses better," nodding at the streetwalkers and the women in the cages, "these girls dirty," as I stepped out of the cab and into chaos because a buffalo cart had broken down and a crowd was quickly gathering to watch the animal kneel in the narrow road as the carter whipped it in sharp methodical bursts of fury, though otherwise he was calm, he didn't curse or sweat as his whip hand rose and fell, rose and fell, slabs of ice packed in sawdust melting in orderly rows on the back of the cart, and everywhere the poor and deranged waited and watched, as I did before climbing the stairs to the first-floor address I'd been given, to stand at the doorway and take it in, a smell of molasses and sleep and illness, a woman tending the pipe, using a long needle to cook the opium, her hand moving as if she was knitting, a couple of smokers lying on pallets, an old man hunched over a stove, inhaling as the opium bubbled, everything in the room happening on the floor, sleeping mats and pillows folded or spread, a calendar on the wall with a photograph of a mosque—listen, stop there and light me again, or let me do it, yes, ah yes, now that's it, lovely, such a sweet meditation, no, more than meditation, it's the bliss that allows calm to settle on the spirit and renders velocity manageable, yes, lovely—and now, in the same city, though it's a lifetime later and here we are, I and I, which isn't said in the Rastafari way to indicate we, but to separate the two I machines, the man and the pipe, the who and the who, telling this story about a long-ago time, when I smoked a pyali and I was sick all day, my first time on Shuklaji Street, new to the street and the city, separated by my lack of knowingness, by the pace of human business on the sidewalks and shops, knowing I didn't have the skills, my gait too slow, paying too much attention to the wrong things, because in my head I wasn't all there and the partialness, the half-there distractedness, was apparent in my face, people looking at me and seeing jet lag, recognizing it as a spiritual deficiency, and I went into Rashid's room, placed my head on a wooden pillow and stretched out, trying to get comfortable, realizing with some surprise that the old man who was nodding over the cook pot was speaking English, speaking to me in the language of a death-mad, religion-obsessed country of living saints, asking if I was Syrian Christian, because he'd noticed the Coptic cross around my neck and he knew Roman Catholics wouldn't wear that kind of cross, and of course he was right, I was Syrian Christian, a Jacobite, if you want the subsect of the subsect cso good, this good smoke, the last smoke from the last pipe on the last night of the world— the old man, whose name was Bengali, saying, "Ah, in that case, perhaps you can answer a question that has been troubling me, I mean the particular way Christianity caught on in Kerala and how Kerala's Hindus, instead of adjusting themselves to Christianity, adjusted Christianity to themselves, to the old caste divisions, and, this is my question, would Jesus have approved of caste-conscious Christianity when his entire project was the removal of it, a man who fraternized with the poor, with fishermen, lepers and prostitutes, the sick and dying, women, his pathology and compulsion to espouse the lowest of the low, his message being God's unconditional love, whatever one's social standing?" and what reply could I have made when he wasn't expecting one, was already nodding as I watched the woman, watched Dimple, and something calmed me in the unhurried way she made the pipe, the way she dipped the cooking needle into a tiny brass pyali with a flat raised edge, the pyali the size of a thimble, filled to the brim with treacle, a liquid with the color and consistency of oil, and she was rolling the tip of the needle in the opium, then lifting it to the lamp where it sputtered and hardened, repeating the procedure until she had a lump the size and color of a walnut, which she mixed against the bowl until it was done, then tapped the needle against the pipe's stem, indicating to me that my smoke was ready, it was, but the pipe was too long, I couldn't manage the heaviness of it, and though I sucked when she held the bowl to the flame, the mouthpiece was too large, the taste too harsh, and when the pipe clogged she took it briskly away to apply the needle once more, saying in English, "Smoke, pull hard," Rashid saying, "Watch Dimple, she'll show you," and she did, shaking the hair out of her eyes, expertly and elegantly fitting the pipe to her mouth, taking a long clean drag, the smoke seeming to disappear, so when she gave me the pipe I was very conscious that it had been in her mouth, and she said, "Pull deep and keep pulling, don't stop, because if you stop, the opium will burn and there's nothing you can do with burned opium but throw it away, so pull until you can't pull anymore," and I, in my ignorance, saying, "Do I take a single continuous drag?" "You can, but then you have to recycle it inside your lungs, better to take short pulls," "How long should I hold it in?" "So many questions, it depends how much nasha you want, hold it as long as you like, but don't put the whole pipe in your mouth, not polite," and I said, "Sorry," and quickly moved the pipe away and brought it back to my lips with care, fitting it carefully, taking my time, understanding that opium was all etiquette, a sense rhythm that centered on the mouth and the way you held the pipe in relation to your body, a lunar ebb and pull of smoke that filled first the lungs and then the veins, and when I looked up she was smiling and so was Bengali, and Rashid said, "Here people say you should introduce only your worst enemy to opium, maybe Dimple is your worst enemy," and I was thinking maybe she isn't, maybe I is, maybe the O is the I and I is unreliable, my memory like blotting paper, my full-of-holes, porous, shreddable nonmemory, remembering details from thirty years ago but this morning a blank, and if memory = pain = being human, I'm not human, I'm a pipe of O telling this story over the course of a single night, and all I'm doing, the other I, that is, I'm writing it down straight from the pipe's mouth, the same pipe Dimple made the first time, but that story's for later–okay, here we go, we're coming to the best part now, the dreams, which aren't dreams but conversations, visitations from absent friends, a raucous procession behind your closed eyelids, your awake and dreaming eyes, and sometimes a voice wakes you, your own voice talking to someone who isn't there, because you're alone, on your back, sailing the opiate sea, no, I'll pass this time, I'm fine, oh yes, beautiful even–the same I who, when they put me in jail, noticed the cell wasn't much smaller than the room I was living in at the time on the Upper East Side, when they caught me buying dope, stoned on downers, and the white cop pulled his gun and chased me down the alley and I saw the dead end and turned, reaching in my pocket to give him the baggies, and the cop didn't shoot, for some reason he didn't shoot, he put me in a van and took me to jail, where, as I say, the cell was the size of the room I was living in and I was happy enough to be there and alive, and later I was sent back to India and I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay–okay, time now for a short one, the night's almost over, a short one to keep the O boat sailing on its treacle tide, and this time all I'm going to do, I'm turning my head and inhaling, you do the rest–and ever since I've tried to separate the one from the other, or not, because now I'm giving in, I'm not separating but connecting, I'm giving in to the lovely stories, I'm lighting the bowl, one for me and one for me, I'm tasting it one last time, savoring the color and the bouquet, the nose of it, yes, like that, so good, and then I'm stopping, because it's time now to subside into silence and let the other I speak.


Excerpted from "Narcopolis"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Jeet Thayil.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue Something for the Mouth 1

Book 1 The City of O 9

1 Dimple 11

2 Rumi on Pimps 21

3 A Painter Visits 25

4 Mr Lee s Lessons in Living 54

Book 2 The Story of the Pipe 73

1 In Spain with Mr Lee 75

2 White Lotus, White Clouds 78

3 'Opium-smoking bandit' 86

4 His Father, the Insect 92

5 'Light me a cigarette' 100

6 To Wuhan 105

7 Twice Abducted 112

8 To Bombay 118

9 The Pipe Comes to Rashid's 123

Book 3 The Intoxicated 133

1 A Walk on Shuklaji Street 135

2 Bengali 145

3 Business Practices among the Criminal Class: An Offer 149

4 The Sari and the Burkha 156

5 'Dum Maro Dum' 163

6 Stinking Asafoetida 170

7 Business Practices among the Criminal Class: C&E 175

8 A Chemical Understanding 182

9 The Intoxicated Entity 190

10 Confessional 206

11 Flight 209

12 Rehab, Relapse 225

Book 4 Some Uses of Reincarnation 263

1 A Large Accumulation of Small Defeats 265

2 The Citizen 271

3 The Enfolding 285

What People are Saying About This

Richard Milward

Narcopolis is a magic carpet ride spanning half a century of drug use, devotion and delirium. Both unassuming and intoxicating, this book's beauty will seep through your synapses, and stay there, like passive-smoking the finest, smoothest psychotropic fumes. (Richard Milward, author of Apples and Ten Storey Love Song)

Daljit Nagra

Jeet Thayil takes Mumbai out of Bollywood cliché and into an underworld that blends the best of Trainspotting with the wild comedy of Goya and the gorgeous yearnings of Keats. A guaranteed top-karat high! (Daljit Nagra, author of Look We Have Coming to Dover!)

Alan Walker

Completely fascinating and told with a feverish and furious necessity, NARCOPOLIS cultivates for us a glorious world which is simultaneously fantastical yet highly realistic. Jeet Thayil has written a work we can place on our book shelves next to Roberto Bolaño, next to G.V. Desani and Hubert Selby. (Alan Walker, author of Morvern Callar and The Stars in the Bright Sky)

Hari Kunzru

Stories unfold and hang in the air. They slide into each other, until you're not quite sure how long you've been reading. Jeet Thayil's Bombay is a city dreaming troubled dreams, and Narcopolis will change the way you imagine it. (Hari Kunzru, author of Transmission and The Impressionist)

From the Publisher

"An elegant tapestry of beautifully observed characters and their complex lives." —-Publishers Weekly Starred Review

Manil Suri

Hypnotic and enthralling - Thayil throws us into his kaleidoscope along with his diamond-edged characters, then twists and turns relentlessly. (Manil Suri, author of The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva)

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Narcopolis 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
GarySeverance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jeet Thayil's novel Narcopolis is the story of Bombay, the old city that changed its name and destroyed part of its history. It is told from the point of view of a man who travels to the city from New York in the 1970s. He is fascinated by the poor areas where criminals provide drugs and prostitution as an alternative way of life for a variety of Indian people. The common denominator of these people is psychological physical pain. Sex and intoxication disconnect the neurons from the individuals' pain receptors. In this depiction of Bombay, many residents have found a life of the senses in rhythm with the life of the old city.The underworld is accepting of characters who deviate radically from normal expectations. These marginalized souls include an opium den operator, a transgender opium pipe preparer, a violent day worker and family man who visits the den, an alcoholic artist who acts out the expectations of deviance by his admirers, a Chinese expatriate businessman mourning the loss of his culture, and other survivors determined to connect without pain to the immediate life of the subcontinent, the mysterious Eastern metropolis of Bombay.Although the old Bombay and its people seem doomed to the squalor of small lives and little motivation to improve their lot, there is remarkable freedom for the adventurous in the life of the immediate senses and easy gratification of desires. There is plenty of opportunity for consideration of morality, religion, art, personal responsibility, reincarnation, violence, rebellion, and the soaring illusion of freedom induced by intoxication. It is all there in the ancient city for people with the courage to immerse themselves in its uplifting and destructive life. The visitor is seduced by the city and comes to understand that it demands that free people give affection to those who need it, and everyone in Bombay regardless of caste needs it.Opium is the symbol of the old Bombay in the novel. Using it is a slow, ritual process that involves a camaraderie and acceptance of others that fosters some mutual affection for all involved. When the visitor rehabs and leaves the old Bombay, he loses track of the life of the city. Revisiting the new city, Mumbai, in the first decade of the 21st Century, heroin from Pakistan has become the new symbol. Its use involves an isolated process that is quick and desperate interfering with the affectionate bonds that were part of ritual opium use. The visitor sees that the city forgot its past and became a place of immediate but dissociative life. Without time to give and receive affection, the incidence of violence, cruelty, and artless tearing down and rebuilding parts of the renamed city has stolen its mysterious life force in the eyes of the returning visitor.Narcopolis reminds me of The Alexandria Quartet Boxed Set by Lawrence Durrell in which characters try to understand the life force of the great city of Alexandria as it changes over the time of their interacting lives. This is a very interesting novel especially in its description of characters who believe that the pulse of the city is like the perpetual high that they seek with chemicals. Ultimately, these truth seekers are overwhelmed by the power of the city and the limits of their understanding of their futile quest to be free of pain.
mcelhra on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the 1970s. The narrator is a frequent customer at an opium den that has an attached brothel. Dimple, a eunuch, works making pipes in the den and in the brothel. The den has other regular customers besides the narrator ¿ artists, family men, and gangsters. Narcopolis follows these characters through the decades as opium gives way to heroin from Pakistan.This book had a different style from most of the books I read. The writing is dreamily hazy ¿ making the reader feel like what the people on drugs must feel like a lot of the time. The time-line was hard to keep straight and sometimes it took me a few sentences to figure out which character the author was writing about. I think this was purposeful though to achieve the drugged up atmosphere.Narcopolis starts with a prologue that is one six and half page run-on sentence. This had me a little worried, if the whole book was written like that I wouldn¿t have been able to handle it. Luckily, the rest of the book is not like that so don¿t let the prologue scare you away.The author is a poet and that comes through in his prose. He almost romanticizes the era of the opium den. When heroin is introduced to Bombay, everyone¿s lives start to fall apart. It¿s much more addictive and renders the user much less functional than opium. Everyone lives a life of melancholy and some live lives of total despair.Narcopolis is not for everyone. If you enjoy poetry and character driven novels you will probably enjoy this book. If you like a straight forward, linear plot than this book might not be for you.
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