High literature from the low streets
By Binoo K john
02nd September 2012 12:00 AM
Mumbai is imagination’s plaything. Or for a fertile imagination Mumbai is the open maidan. From Thayil’s seedy Shuklaji Street to Altamond Road there are layers of lives, opening to various story tellers. All you need to do is — trawl.
Jeet Thayil does just that. He knows Mumbai like he knows his heroin(e). Narcopolis is among the many Mumbai novels that have made it to the Booker long list. Will the author be luckier than Rohinton Mistry (thrice listed) and the winner of pre-Nobel 50,000 dollar US Neustadt Prize and Anita Desai (also thrice long listed)? Well, Mumbai has enthralled the literary world like no other city. Within its chaos lie lives that are haunting and writerly.
Narcopolis is a fab trip. Often you feel giddy, sometimes feel high, at other times, feel numbed, sometimes like when the author takes us on a massive digression to China and cultural revolution purges — plain bored.
Narcopolis is a Mumbai story that had to be told. Thayil has found enough inspiration to write poems, run literary salons and survive as the uncrowned literary Tiger outside the establishment. He has been his own man wanting nothing from anyone and generously giving, the literary award he has instituted in the name of his late wife being an example. As a poet he has rattled us and along with CP Surendran formed the famous young Mumbai poetry duet act. All these years as Booker Prizes came and went, Thayil waited to seize his moment . Now post-50 the time has come with a disturbing debut.
Narcopolis is brilliantly subversive and appoints quite cheekily, an opium smoking eunuch Dimple as the hero(ine) of the novel as if to laugh at the Indian habit of reserving such slots only to US educated brahmins, who go and love and marry and smooch and divorce and then go to the banks of the Ganges for the final purification. Thayil mocks at this tradition propagated by certain middle class women writers, and comes out a clean winner, with a disturbingly ‘dirty’ novel.
To have deformed beings as protagonists has been a literary trend since we got Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. So empathy and pathos are in-built and solve many problems for the writer. Recently, Chandras Choudhary set Arzee the Dwarf also in Mumbai, knowing that the pathos of the megapolis will rub off on the character. The character and the city are thus metaphors running in parallel.
In Thayil’s hands, Mumbai is fabulously and eerily evoked. His novel is located, in Shuklaji Street and Arab gully, at the other end of the spectrum from Altamond Road. Here in a junkies den, life, death and metamorphosis unfold. Here life is lived outside the balance sheets and stock exchanges and IPOs. Here, everything depends on how the opium is fixed. The tutorial on a fix is a delight:
“Watch Dimple, she’ll show you, and she did—shaking the hair out of her eyes, expertly and elegantly fitting the pipe to her mouth. Taking a long clean drag, — the smoke seeming to disappear, So, when she gave me the pipe I was very conscious it had been in her mouth and she said, ‘Pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop, because if you stop the opium will burn and there’s nothing you can do with burned opium but throw it away, so pull until you can’t pull any more,”…
In Indian writing, Dimple is a riposte to the middle class heroines. Dimple never has any say on her life. From the time she was castrated, to the time when inevitably she lands up in a brothel, offering herself to Lalajis to be buggered, to being the opium fixer, clearing buckets of used condoms and cigarette butts, in the end to the rehab, Dimple just goes along. She has no complaints. She holds a mirror to us for everything. From the den and the brothel, she makes us look so small. Why do such stories from seedy places “full of shit” disturb us so? Are these places the margin or actually the mainstream? Over the years we have successfully shut these places out from our consciousness, our pages, maps and minds and from news pages.
Dimple is Thayil’s great success. To take a small character from the margins of Mumbai, to make her real, to draw her in, is majestic craft. Thayil seems to know that terrain well. Narcopolis is not all smoke. There is fire. Thayil’s low street is high literature.
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