Nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, Narcopolis is a tale of drugs and sex workers which opens in the haze of Bombay’s opium dens in the 1960s. It was one of two books nominated for this months Book Club read and it was the clear winner.
Though not an easy read, Narcopolis achieved the most important status in that everyone managed to finish the book and find merit between the covers. Many found the subject matter distressing with its lurid scenes of drug taking, prostitution and murder in Bombay and yet somehow we read on.
Jeet Thayal has the gift of poetry, and the more we read, the more we had to keep on reading as we ourselves became addicted to his cinematic visions of life in a city existing apparently without morals.
There’s no doubt that part of the attraction was in reading about a world that we could never even imagine existed, a world where children are mutilated to become eunuchs and sex workers. A world where a sex worker is treated as the lowest form of life, and whose life has no value to others beyond the basic need they supply. A world where any drug is acceptable, as long as there are customers alive and willing to buy it.
But equally fascinating were the interwoven lives of the characters. There is no clear plot other than the book loosely follows the life story of Dimple, the eunuch. Her customers and friends form the other life stories as sub-plots. For example she goes to see and becomes close friends with Mr Lee, an ex-soldier who hails from 1940s communist China. Suddenly we are hearing his whole life story and becoming party to another world of which we had no prior knowledge.
But holding all these disparate images together is the central character of Dimple, who without a clear gender or even a clear memory of her mother or childhood, is completely alone in the world. She is not sure if she has any memories at all before she was castrated, or if her memories are drug induced fantasies or other people’s stories she has taken on as her own. Without a family to remind her where she came from and who she is, she can be sure of nothing. Yet Dimple is without bitterness and soon we care deeply about her. Finding out what happens to Dimple was another important reason for finishing the book.
As Dimple gets older, her beauty starts to fade. She learns a new skill and sometimes starts to wear a burkah, a garment that we middle class female Book Club readers have always assumed to be a symbol of oppression. Yet it gives Dimple a new power we could never imagine and we are shown a new perspective of the relationship between the sexes.
Narcopolis, despite its challenging and often disturbing content, was awarded a very high score: 7 out of 10