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Book Review: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Sentenced to death

More Rushdie-lite than rushed delight, Narcopolis tries far too hard.

Jeet Thayil begins his first novel with a very long sentence, one of those showboating literary devices that can make or mar the mood, and while the writing in that chapter-long opening salvo is more precious than authentically frantic, far too eager to show off the poet’s linguistic range — from poor puns to patronising punditry — there is an undeniable energy to it, a grace apparent even as the writer aims to impress, to astound, to make you draw your breath in and wonder what comes next, admittedly a pretty smart way to start a book except, and here’s the thing, except it isn’t really a long sentence, it doesn’t really glide, instead using commas as crutches, as fullstops in disguise, striving unnaturally to take a relatively intriguing prologue and turn it into a stream-of-consciousness spectacle, a guitar-solo opening meant to electrify the reader, and while that is peachy keen in theory, perhaps there is a reason events, even literary ones, don’t begin with showstoppers, and this ambitious Narcopolis is left teetering as the writer keeps scrabbling to find room (in a hovel-novel crammed with characters, backstories and dreams) to roll up his unprosaic sleeves and work in another sensationally gaspworthy guitar riff, and the result is painful as each of the book’s undoubtedly colourful multiple narrators — junkies of extraordinary description, separated by gender, geography, greed — look at the world with the very same open-mouthed sense of wonder, absorbing it all like sponges with remarkable powers of observation and regurgitating it right up to the point that they take their next hit, which, invariably, sends them down a spiral that spells out how all dreams are prophetic and all dreamers doubly so, a repetitive trope that renders the book tragically turgid, one that exhausts more than it exhilarates even as Thayil laboriously pulls out all the stops to dazzle us, taking us from the book’s leading lady — a eunuch christened Dimple after the hit film playing in theatres at the time she was Bobby-ted, so to speak — to Chairman Mao’s China, to the McMumbai of today, and while Thayil painstakingly and often beautifully details the varying effects different drugs have on very different people, lingering meticulously on the consumptive process behind each drug, his fond intoxication with the subject renders it tiresome as the book goes on and the method and madness of every single drug — at least to the casual user, nay, reader — blurs into the other and we are tempted to feel that the writer is leading us down parallel rabbit-holes all to the same effect, which isn’t altogether true, but (all together now?) sure as hell feels like it, despite the writer fleshing out the eunuch character quite brilliantly, telling us her story with fascinated sympathy while all other characters seem somewhat condescendingly pinned down by cliché, by the need to act like books and movies inform us characters of that ‘type’ would act in similar circumstances, especially when the action shifts to rice-eating Mao-worshipping China, but despite provoking much rolling of the eyes, the writer occasionally manages marvellous stylistic flourishes (“The sky was the colour of someone’s black eye,” he writes for the rain-ravaged city) that almost make up for constant allusions to the kind of authors he would like to share a shelf with (Baudelaire mentions notwithstanding, this lies closer to Khushwant Singh’s masterful Delhi, a great novel which managed the city-as-eunuch narrative far more authentically) as he keeps nudging, winking and suggesting that this Narcopolis is just the type of confounding volume its character Mr Lee would wonder whether to call imagined autobiography or a historical novel, and which first novel we should just call a trip, no more no less, a surreptitiously sucked-in hit that thrills only in bits, thrills less than it tires, but nevertheless a quick ride with true merit and some steam, and if only he, like his narrator, had split the seductively long line into more coherently sized chunks, we’d all have inhaled it easier — though I must here confess that writing a really long sentence is mad cool.

~

First published Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, February 19, 2012

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Read a book with legs

A couple of days ago, I was forwarded a piece called ‘Date A Girl Who Reads,’ doing the usual rounds all over the Internet. Affectionate at first glance, this was a rather offensive piece of simplistic drivel that assumed women who read don’t do anything but live within paragraphs of their beloved books, books they keep mistaking for real life, presumably because they smell them too much.

Right.

So instead of dating a hypothetical woman who doesn’t do anything but read, I exhort you to go one better:

Read a book with legs.

It’ll come to you. Literally, that is. When you call it. When you lie in bed and wish you hadn’t left it in the other room, all you have to do is ask for it loudly, and you’ll hear its high-heeled feet coming your way.

Read a book with legs. Just imagine how much fun dog-earing would be now. And instead of buying it leather binding, you could give it fishnet stockings.

Of course, it will need more room than the average shelf. Perhaps even the guest bedroom. Yet this is but a small bargain; picture those legs casually straddling you when you lay the book face-down on your chest, to take a phone call, say. Gosh.

You can take your book to the park, and as it sits with long legs crossed, you can read in bright sunlight.

It’ll go wherever you go, which is lovely. You will have to buy two tickets, of course, so air travel might be rather exorbitant. Yet the book will walk alongside you, helpfully enough with pages open so you peek through it without having even to break your stride.

Occasionally, you can take it to the library. And sit back while the legs head off to find a familiar shelf, and squeeze enthusiastically in between a Dickens and a DeLillo. Give it a while, whistle and it’ll run back to you. You see that coating of dust on its jacket now? Well, that’s wisdom. Just keep the legs away from the Nabakov shelf and you’ll be fine.

Take care of the book with legs. Don’t leave it lying around under a pile of living room clutter, its feet foraging for space between old magazines, constantly endangered by empty beer cans. Or worse, lying unattended and cold in the bathroom, its shivering legs constantly coiled in fear of spiders.

Also, while obvious, it must be stated: don’t read two books with legs. If you must, keep them very, very far apart. In different neighbourhoods, ideally. The sort of ruckus two pairs of incensed legs can kick up has to be seen to be believed, and when it comes to your shins, all bets are off. Just because you read one first, long before the second came along, and it seems reasonable to switch from book to book, suffice it to say that the books don’t buy that one bit.

But stay true to that one book with legs, and you’ll be fine. It’ll make you smile, it’ll make you think, it’ll make you weep and it’ll make you break into laughter so inappropriately loud those not in the know will think you’re smuggling some sort of tiny tickling woman in your overcoat. All that and it’s perfect for a late night snuggle. Read a book with legs and it’ll make you happy.

You could, of course, choose to instead go for a book with breasts. They’re just fiendishly hard to close.

~

First published Rediff, March 17, 2011

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An Open Letter to Sir Salman Rushdie

Dear Mr Rushdie,

I was born in the same year Midnight’s Children was released. While you irrevocably changed the face of the Indian novel — all the while tweaking its nose — with spellbinding verbal pyrotechnics and tremendous magic realism, I took my first steps. There is no way to softpedal the kinship I feel with that novel or any of your subsequent and former words, and I have grown up, humbly and inconsequentially, in the ever-expanding shadow of what you have written. Handcuffed to your words, so to speak. This might be a major publication and they might title what I am now writing as a column, but I, sir, am a groupie.

sr21Which makes this unsolicited yet crucial missive far far harder to write. While whooping with immeasurable glee in the news that you will finally be writing a sequel to my favourite book, Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, I must confess that my jaw fell unflatteringly open when I heard of the upcoming Midnight’s Children cinematic adaptation. I gasped and huffed and puffed, and it took me a while to collect my thoughts and address you as I am now.

The story of Saleem Sinai is a multilayered work of astonishing brilliance that is, in its original form, impossible to translate to screen. Not that great films haven’t come out of unfilmable novels — Kubrick based a career on doing it bloody well — and I must say I had a ball at the Barbican a few years ago when I saw the RSC perform their own version of the novel — written by you alongside Tim Supple — which was most entertaining. The Doors playing in the background, referencing Apocalypse Now, somehow totally gelled with that delightful stage interpretation, and Zubin Varla was a terrific Saleem.

You, of course, know this. You are preparing to roll up sleeves and muddy your hands with screenplay again, tackling the project afresh — after already having been through a few gruelling, revolutionary drafts. You’ve always hoped that Midnight’s Children would find its way onto the screen, and felt justifiably heartbroken when India, fickle mother, didn’t allow the BBC to shoot its series in the country. You want to do it bigger and better and get that fantastic novel the movie it so completely deserves, and for that endeavour all us fans of the book wish you the very, very best.

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