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Narcopolis – see Mumbai through a haze of cannabis

narcopolisNarcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.

As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.

As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.

Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.

It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :

An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”


The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.

Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “Narcopolis – see Mumbai through a haze of cannabis

  • I’ve long havered about this novel, so it’s helpful to see your positive review. I don’t mind disorientation, particularly in the context of depicting drug experiences, but it’s a good thing to know you’re in for and are in the right mood to engage with.

    • Far be it for me to suggest you read this book having smoked something yourself. But maybe a few large glasses of wine would put you in a similar mood

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  • Another book that’s lying unread on my bookshelves. To be fair, I did give this a try, but I suppose I wasn’t in the mood for it, as I gave up on it pretty soon.

    • it is definitely one you have to be in the right frame of mind for

  • Wow, this book sounds like quite the trip! (pun intended!)

  • Glad you enjoyed the read. I read the book last year and could not connect with it. I think it was wonderfully written, but just not my kind of a book.

  • We had NARCOPOLIS in our Book Club a few years back. I’m a great fan of Indian novels, but didn’t enjoy this one. You can’t win them all!

    • A very unusual – and quite brave – choice for a book club. I bet it divided opinions quite markedly Alison

    • Just read your review. As always you find ideas/themes that I missed and provided a far more coherent review than I managed.

      • No, never say that. I enjoy your reviews immensely! BTW The Underground Railway has arrived, I am just clearing the decks with some books that have to go back to the library and then I’m into it!

        • Great to know the book delivery worked – it took a bit longer than expected because they ran out of stock…

  • I read this a few years ago- I really didn’t like it at all. Maybe I missed something.

    • I think its one of those books Ali that either sucks you in or baffles you.

      • buriedinprint

        I’m glad to know that you found it a little confusing (dazzing is a nice way of putting it, BTW); it’s on my list so I’ll choose a reading time when I can be sure to pay attention!

  • This is on my piles somewhere. I was actually afraid it would be a bit if a dud and thought about giving it away but it sounds much better than I thought.

  • I loved this book – I read it a while back. Very interesting narrative of modern India

  • Sounds surprisingly beautiful. It’s probably a book I would never have thought to pick up, but I do need to be nudged outside my comfort zone sometimes!


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