Paperback review: Narcopolis, By Jeet Thayil

Fiery tales from a boiling cauldron

It's only 292 pages, but this feels like a great big beast of a novel, full of poetry and poverty, squalor and sex, death and drugs – and Bombay, which is both the first and last word of the book.

The story – or network of stories, for the novel is formed of several interconnected narratives, each focused on a different character – revolves around Rashid's opium establishment, which is frequented by gangsters and garad-dealers, pimps, pushers, junkies, tourists, and the hijra (eunuch) Dimple, who works part-time there. Castrated at the age of eight, she is now a prostitute and like all the main characters is a drug addict; opium is the only thing that lessens her pain. That, and teaching herself to read.

Dimple is the moral and emotional centre of the novel; despite her terrible experiences she has a sweetness, gentleness, tolerance and lovability which go far beyond the usual "tart-with-a-heart" cliche. Dimple apart, none of the characters is in the least bit nice: they are to a man greedy, needy, egotistical and prone to bursts of irrational violence. The book, indeed, is studded with scenes of shocking physical violence. Bombay in the 1970s is a cauldron which frequently boils over.

A flashback section which follows one of the characters to China during the Cultural Revolution is no relief; if anything it's even worse there.

But Thayil's writing is also, in places, bitterly funny. He is a past master at the art of swearing. Like a beautiful nightmare, this novel is not easy to forget.