Sunday, January 1, 2017
Through a Page, Darkly
Reading the reviews of Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis makes me painfully aware of my shortcomings as a reader. (This review, for example.) Perhaps there's an on-line course in Indian literature in my future, to help me appreciate Indian literature of the past and present.
I read this novel to represent the color black for the Color Coded Reading Challenge and doubled it into the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. It's been on my TBR list for a while now as a DSC Prize for South Asian Literature winner, so I'm happy to have gotten to it--even if I wasn't well equipped to actually "get" it.
Amazon's description calls this novel "luminous" but emphasizes that it's the obverse of the traditional Indian novel. It spans more than 20 years in the lives of the society and underworld men and women who frequent Mumbai's drug parlors and houses of prostitution. The tale is sordid, somewhat violent, and darkened by a haze of addiction. There are kindnesses, and bits of brightness, and hints of life beyond the borders of Mumbai's slums and districts, but they are few and far between.
At times--particularly in relation to the character of Dimple, a eunuch who works as a prostitute and also prepares the pipes in an opium den--I felt a jolt of transcendent understanding and connection. But all too soon that faded away, leaving me with a drowsy, gauzy disinterest in the outcome of these difficult lives.
Thayil's writing presents his story in an affecting way, delivering a unevenly fogged experience that reflects the narcotic perspective of his characters. Thayil has admitted that he himself was addicted, so he knows what he's writing about; if his intention was to deliver an approximation of the opium or heroin experience, I'd say he succeeded.
Excerpt (Dimple at the movies):
Dimple understood the exact nature of Janice's suffering. To know you were unloved by your parents, it was a wound that would never heal. Nothing Dimple did to forget her early life could change this fundamental fact. She was always under the sway of it. It never went away. She'd think she was okay, but she wasn't. If she wasn't sleeping enough or if she was anxious, it would catch up with her, as fresh and wet and red as it had ever been. In the scene when brother and sister are finally reunited in a village in Kathmandu, Dimple made no effort to hide her tears. Others were crying too, men and women, entire families weeping together as they munched their popcorn and sucked noisily at bottles of Thums Up and Fanta.