Sleaze sells India like nothing else can. So Narcopolis tries: ‘It was the idea of a eunuch in a filthy brothel in Shuklaji Street, this was what they paid for. Dimple thought: They like the dirtiness of it. Nothing else gets their dicks so hard.’
Jeet Thayil’s beautified rendering of the vanishing landscape of the brothels and opium dens of Shuklaji Street is the Orientalist’s wet dream. His lovely prose veers between poetry and profanity, refusing to engage with reality. Here are stories of the people in Rashid’s chandolkhana, told over 20 years. Dimple, the beautiful bibliophiliac hijra; Rashid, householder and decadent, ironic in his dichotomy; Salim, the pickpocket and rent boy who breaks out at last; the villainous Rumi and his complicated hates. Their stories are replete with event, at home and at orifice, but always sfumato, seen through the anodyne haze.
Over the years, the merchandise on Shuklaji St has changed from O to gardul to ‘chemical’, and life is now polarised as Hindu or Muslim by riots, but the characters remain safe in their urgencies. Neither age nor circumstance has interfered with the inner landscape, unscathed within the amnion of addiction.
Unscathed, too, is the reader. Though Thayil plays Pygmalion to the hilt, Dimple is not incarnate enough. Neither are other tragedies and epiphanies that crowd the book. The author’s elegant cynicism reads too much like platitude for us to feel the pain of his characters. Narcopolis dwells, but in the suburbs of their good pleasure.