The literary dynasty of the Desai's has been high on my list this year (although I haven't reviewed all I read), as has filling in the gaps of my Rushdie reading (ditto: sometimes I simply want to savor a book, not critique it).
So when offered the chance to encounter a new-to-me poet-novelist with a decidedly dark yet lyrical take on Bombay's opium-to-heroine culture of the 1970's through '90's, I thought, "Sure. Don't mind if I do."
And, on balance, I'm glad I did.
What it's about (or at least how it seemed to me): Narrator Dom Ullis is a young, educated world traveller who occasionally frequents an opium den in a rather seedy quarter of Bombay in the '70's. There, he meets Dimple, the eunuch prostitute and pipe-handler. She becomes the moral and emotional center of the story, a seeker who loves to read and who continually reaches toward spiritual and philosophical clarity.
Unfortunately, her life circumstances ebb and flow from bad to worse to slightly hopeful and then down again into tragedy. Her only mentor, Mr. Lee, dies early in their relationship, and she is haunted by his ghost thereafter. Yet this is the least of her problems when dealing with increasingly persistent addictions, emotional and physical abuse, and the effects of living from day to day as the 'kept woman' of her emotionally unavailable boss Rashid, who already has two wives and a family of his own.
There's a large cast of supporting characters, most drug addicts living in Bombay who visit Rashid's opium parlor, and most memorably the ironically named serial murderer Rumi, who provides a terrifying counterpoint to Dimple's enduring gentleness and generosity of spirit.
The lives of these folks over three decades or so provide the forward movement for this novel as Ullis returns from time to time to catch up on their devolving lives.
Yet there's more here than just that: some characters search for truth, beauty and salvation through art, philosophy, and religion, providing readers with a vicarious struggle for survival and even dignity that's rare to experience in most contemporary fiction. In Narcopolis, Thayil aspires to explore one of the most trenchant challenges of our age (or any age, I suppose): the quest for transcendence amid the squalor and degeneracy of a near-apocalyptic urban landscape. If you can stomach the horrors therein, you will certainly emerge both troubled and enriched.
And the writing's strong. Quite. Lyrical, cadenced, it's the work of a poet-cum-novelist without doubt.
How my time interacting with the novel changed me: To be truthful, each novel I read about India seems to call me back to the present moment; the worldview is so different from my New-England-bred, Catholic-and-Buddhist-influenced sensibilities that I emerge newly cognizant of my own biases and blind-spots, and grateful for the perceptual shift that reading a provocative work from another culture inevitably engenders.
And I do believe that any empathetic reader will leave the experience of Narcopolis enriched, viewing the world - at least for a time - as just a bit more tawdry and more miraculous than we had previously noticed. Certainly, I was offered many opportunities to cultivate stalwart endurance while vicariously facing fearful and violent acts. That is a blessing, in the end.
My action step: I will conduct another mini-inquiry about Bombay today, and track down some of Thayil's poetry if I can. Writer-willing, I'll feature at least one of his works on Poem In Your Post one weekend soon.
Gratitude to Mr. Thayil, his publishers at Penguin, and Trish at TLC Book Tours for offering me this opportunity.
p.s. Looking for an alternate view? Check out the fine reviews of 10 other bloggers on this book tour.