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9781594203305

Narcopolis: A Novel

Thayil, Jeet Author

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Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize

Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. This 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 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. Written in Thayil’s poetic and affecting prose, Narcopolis charts the evolution of a great and broken metropolis.

Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city’s underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of unforgettably degenerate and magnetic characters works and patronizes the venue, including Dimple, the eunuch who makes pipes in the den; Rumi, the salaryman and husband whose addiction is violence; Newton Xavier, the celebrated painter who both rejects and craves adulation; Mr. Lee, the Chinese refugee and businessman; and a cast of poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters.

Decades pass to reveal a changing Bombay, where opium has given way to heroin from Pakistan and the city’s underbelly has become ever rawer. Those in their circle still use sex for their primary release and recreation, but the violence of the city on the nod and its purveyors have moved from the fringes to the center of their lives. Yet Dimple, despite the bleakness of her surroundings, continues to search for beauty—at the movies, in pulp magazines, at church, and in a new burka-wearing identity.

After a long absence, the narrator returns in 2004 to find a very different Bombay. Those he knew are almost all gone, but the passion he feels for them and for the city is revealed.

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About the Author:

Jeet Thayil was born in 1959 in Kerala, India. He was educated in Hong Kong, New York, and Bombay, cities where his father worked as an editor and writer. His four poetry collections include These Errors Are Correct and English, and he 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. Narcopolis is his first novel. He lives in Delhi.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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.

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Book Description Penguin Press HC, The, 2012. Book Condition: New. Brand New, Unread Copy in Perfect Condition. A+ Customer Service! Summary: Shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize A Flavorwire Best Book of the Year One of Financial Times'' Best Books of 2012 "If you know and have enjoyed [John Rechy, Alexander Trocchi, William Burroughs], then Narcopolis belongs at your bedside . As it does, as well, even if you know none of them but want to read a jarring, revelatory, X-rated yet somehow miraculously lyrical depiction of some of the lowest things we do as human beings, even as we try to rise up again from lying prone, stoned, deluded, denuded of all dignity yet still hoping for a better world." Alan Cheuse, The Dallas Morning News "Thayil is a poet, and it shows in the prose, which contains countless moments of great beauty . His debut is an unsettling portrait of a seething city, a beautifully-written meditation on addiction, sex, friendship, dreams, and murder. It''s a simultaneously brutal and beautiful work, dreamlike without ever being sentimental or vague or soft-hearted. Narcopolis is a truly impressive achievement. " The Millions "[Thayil''s] brash, hallucinatory Narcopolis has mainlined him into the international narco-literati circle, one that counts Scotsman Irvine Welsh, Chilean Roberto Bolao, and American smack daddy William Burroughs among its esteemed members. Will Thayil, like Rushdie, inspire a whole new school of Indian writing? " Vanity Fair " In ambition, Narcopolis is reminiscent of Roberto Bolao ; but it is Denis Johnson''s Jesus''s Son . that is its closer kin. Thankfully, Thayil creates something original and vital from those blueprints. One yearns for the next hit." The Telegraph "Thayil''s precision and economy distill what could be a sprawling and uneven saga into an elegant tapestry of beautifully observed characters and their complex lives ." Publishers Weekly (starred) " Narcopolis imports the rhythms and emphasis of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs to chronicle the sick thrill of drugs, but uses the structural eye of a journalist to depict with scary clarity how heroin takes down bodies and cities simultaneously." The Onion A.V. Club " I wished that this book, like some long and delicious opium-induced daydream, would go on and on . The end, sadly, does eventually come. Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book." The Guardian " Beautifully written, inventive and clear-eyed , Narcopolis deserves to be read and acclaimed." TLS " Outstanding debut novel . The ingenuity of Thayil''s novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society." The Independent " Devastating . As Dimple says to the narrator in a dream: ''You should listen. Even if you can''t bear it, you should listen.'' And that is precisely what this novel asks us to do: to listen to the most vulnerable people who usually don''t have a voice." The New Statesman "The sense of place is intoxicatingly horrible, and the author''s poetic style makes something iridescently lush and nightmarish out of the squalor of recent Bombay." The Sunday Times " Narcopolis will hypnotise you. This is a poetic book about vice and desperation, and a truly exceptional debut ." Booktrust "As his well-drawn characters, from pimps to poets, fall deeper under the opium spell, losing their sense of self to their dependency, the author never takes his hand from the narrative tiller. Narcopolis represents a truly international work of fiction : influenced by and sitting comfortably alongside western works such as Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream , yet possess. Bookseller Inventory # ABE_book_new_159420330X

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