Jeet Thayil's 'Narcopolis', nominated to the Man Booker longlist, highlights many aspects of Mumbai's underworld, and bemoans the loss of liberal values in the city

By Shevlin Sebastian

Jeet Thayil's 'Narcopolis' has an astonishing prologue. Titled, 'Something at the mouth', it is one sentence that goes on for six and a half pages. “I was trying to reproduce an opium-induced dream,” says Thayil. “This is an open-ended feeling. How do you approximate that experience in language? You cannot do it in a short declarative Hemingwaysque type of sentence. It has to be a long, multi-layered kind of sentence.”

'Narcopolis' is set in Mumbai in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Thayil spent several years there, in opium dens and in the shadowy underworld, where all sorts of characters can be found. So, there is, among many others, Dimple, a eunuch, acclaimed painter Newton Xavier, and Chinese businessman Mr. Lee.

Interestingly, in the novel, from Mumbai, the scene suddenly shifts to China, for about 70 pages. “There is a reason why that happens,” says Thayil. “The secret history of Bombay is that its fortunes were built on opium. Between 1800 and 1840, about half a dozen Parsi ship owners got together with the British East India Company and shipped thousands of tons of opium to China and turned a generation into addicts. And that money made Bombay the financial capital that it is today.”

All those Parsi ship owners later went on to build highways, roads, hospitals and art colleges like the JJ School of Art. “People have forgotten that, originally, the Parsis made their money by being drug dealers.”

People have also forgotten how Mumbai was like earlier. “In the nineteen eighties, it was a beautiful, laid-back, liberal and liberating sort of place,” says Thayil. “There was a sense of freedom in the air, but that has gone completely. Today, it is a very tense place, and that is not because of the traffic, the noise or the huge press of people.”

Thayil blames the Shiv Sena and the Hindu Right for making Mumbai a fraught place, full of anxiety and fear. “They have pitted community against community,” he says. “A lot of the conversation that people used to have earlier, you cannot have any more because you have to be aware of the background or the religious community that the person belongs to.”

As a result, there is a censorship of thought, language, and conversation. “Once that happens in a community or a city, it is the beginning of the end,” says Thayil. “Bombay is no longer the cosmopolitan kind of cultural capital of India it was once and could have been. It has become a regressive and primitive place.”

Meanwhile, Thayil admits that 'Nacropolis' is a semi-autobiographical novel. “A lot of the information is there is because I was in that shadowy society for many years,” he says. “I got into this world because I was seduced by the romance of it. I had never seen anything like it before.” (Incidentally, thanks to his journalist-father, Thayil grew up in Hongkong, studied in New York and came to India only when he was 18.)

Thayil, of course, paid a price for the access. He was a drug addict and alcoholic for 20 years. “Looking back, it was a colossal waste of my life,” he says. But he is clean now and his writing career is taking off.

'Nacropolis', which took five years to write, has made waves. Just a few days ago, it was nominated to be on the Man Booker longlist of 12 books. This list was made from an initial batch of 145 books. “Yes, I was pleasantly surprised and happy to be on the long list,” he says. In September, a short-list of six books will be announced.

Meanwhile, Thayil has been on a global tour promoting the book. He has been to South Africa, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and all over India. “I am going to Brisbane, Edinburgh, Hongkong, Singapore, The Hague and Dubai in the next few months,” he says.

In between, he has also been working on his next novel, 'The Lives of the Saints'. “One of the characters in Narcopolis, Newton Xavier, who dominates a chapter and then disappears, is appearing in this book,” says Thayil. “Newton is loosely based on two great Indian artists, Dom Moraes and F.N. Souza.” 
(The New Indian Express, Kerala)