March 9, 2012 10:11 pm

Prelapsarian paradise

A wistful journalist’s stories of those with whom he shared opium dens evoke a dark, gritty vision of 1970s Mumbai

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, Faber, £12.99, 304 pages

 

Jeet Thayil’s vigorous and vivid first novel is set largely in the red light districts of 1970s Mumbai. The narrator is Dom, a wistful journalist who tells the stories of the characters with whom he shared the city’s opium dens – Dimple, an orphaned prostitute; Rumi, a louche addict; Rashid, a dealer with old fashioned notions of decency – before harder drugs disrupted their lives.

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Thayil has spoken in interviews about his suspicion of the sort of nostalgic Indian fiction that evokes a paradise of monsoons and mangoes, and this is certainly a darker, grittier vision of the subcontinent than one usually encounters. But the author himself seems a little nostalgic when he celebrates a prelapsarian era of benign opium and attentive eunuchs.

Still, this is a compelling, often exhilarating debut. Thayil deftly weaves the various narrative threads, and his overheated, hypertrophied prose invites comparison with the greatest of all narco-novels: William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

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