Thursday, December 13, 2012

Nacropolis by Jeet Thayil

Nacropolis by Jeet Thayil is an opiate, a page-turner, a hookah-smoke-filled exploration of Bombay through adventures in grotesque and conversations of the underbelly. The metropolis is presented as the beloved city of drug- and dream- addicts. Jeet recreates Nacropolis from a realm of nostalgia often neglected by the middle-class moralists, censored by the self-righteous white-collared archivists and invariably ignored by the anglicized writers whose familiarity with Indian multitudes on streets matches the know-how acquired by weekend foreign tourists. In Nacropolis, each page is like a new puff, each puff leads to a new insight or cough or nightmare or hiccup. In the backdrop of storytelling by sedated characters, unfold the inescapable, newsworthy events of the nineteen seventies and eighties (including riots, movies, politicians, cricket). Each event pushes the protagonists from one level of addiction to another, for it is the cocktail of politics, economics, society & religion that provides kicks sterner than any dope can deliver. This portrait of the dark-alleys on Bombay, written with a lyricism and condensation of a poet, is a brew too strong for average readers, addicted to a Bollywood reality, televised farces and to endless narratives penned by a cult of schooled writers who view the real world through tinted glasses of their high-rise, high-minded lifestyles.

Nacropolis by Jeet Thayil struts its hijra hero/heroine through smoke-filled corridors resonant with echoes of paid-sex and free-style storytelling. After Khushwant Singh's Bhagmati in his novel 'Delhi', Jeet gives Bombay her own Dimple to rule the land of hukkah and blah. Like G. V. Desani and Rushdie, Jeet offers a fantastical recreation of Indian kitsch and kaleidoscopic reality. Jeet takes a wide-lens exposure of the hitherto unlettered realms of the city, zooms into the folds of flesh that present their share of secrets and sin, fantasy and filth, joy and depravity. Though written with an intoxicating sincerity, certain passages do reach out beyond the seams of reality and fantasy; maybe that is to be expected while reading the ramblings of a feverish cast. To those who believe that chauvinistic regionalism and choice religion can be stamped onto the 'Mumbai'-dwellers, Nacropolis presents a needle-prick protest by invoking transnational deities and homegrown demons that exist and persist in the city streets.

In Nacropolis, the cast of memorable characters include a Mr Lee who escaped from China when it turned communist (and he provides a heady portrait of his nation in transition), Rashidbhai, a drugdealer whose life and business are transformed first by Dimple and later by the emergence of heroin, Rumi who is full of violence, vapor and jazz (and is a US-returned Brahmin unhappily married to a Jain), choicest hippies & junkies, and a Bengali who delights in literature and opium. By reaching back to the twenty years Jeet spent chasing opium and oblivion in his beloved Bombay, he has retrieved an ode and created an elegy to a lost world of addictions and aspirations. Like any great work of fiction, Nacropolis combines wordplay, narration, imagination, tone, music and wistfulness, to create a masterpiece that will force readers to reassess their own experiences of, and perspectives about, their cities, histories, addictions, acquaintances and memories. 

First appeared in Reading Hour, Fall 2012

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