High on Shuklaji Street

Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis, takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride of Bombay’s red light, drug-dealing Shuklaji Street in the 1970s. The narrator is Dom Ullis, a Christian from Kerala, immersed at one-time in the hard drug culture scene of Bombay (now Mumbai), and a biography that closely emulates that of the author. Thayil is an accomplished poet and musician, and the words of his novel establish a beat, a pulsating rhythm that guides the narrative from start to finish.

Most of the action takes place in Rashid’s drug den on Shuklaji Street. Opium, cocaine and heroin are used by the regulars that include Ullis, the eunuch, turned prostitute, Dimple, and Salim, a daytime watch store clerk, who turns into a gangster’s thug at night. There is also an interesting side story relating the history of Mr. Lee, a Chinese man residing in Bombay and who is a user at Rashid’s. Mr. Lee’s story brings us into the throes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, an expansive historical event which is juxtaposed nicely with the “sit around, get stoned” culture of Rashid’s rooms on Shuklaji Street.

This is not an easy book to read, but if you can make out the multitude of Indian street terms through context, and not be turned off by jolting sexual and drug descriptive narrative, the literary journey is well worth the ride. Thayil’s characterization is amazing, and his story-telling skills are finely crafted. I believe that Narcopolis has a decent chance to land on the Man Booker Prize shortlist this September.

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