loulamac’s #CBRV review #45: Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

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My 2012 Booker shortlist adventure continues, this time in the rambling, incoherent world of opium and heroin addicts in Mumbai. I didn’t have high hopes, as I invariably find that books praised for being hallucinatory or delirium-induced end up being dead pretentious and really hard work to read. Once I’d got through the opening seven pages though, which did not contain one single full stop (sigh), it wasn’t that bad.

The book opens in 1970s Bombay (as it was then), and for the most part tells the story of the hijra Dimple, and Rashid, the owner of an opium den. Dimple, who was castrated at the age of 12, is beautiful and readily passes for a biological women. She is working as a prostitute when she comes to Rashid, bringing with her the ornate antique opium pipes that belonged to her now dead friend, Mr Lee. In return for the pipes, Rashid employs her to prepare them for customers. And so an abiding love affair, friendship and business arrangement is born. The novel drifts in and out of periods and narrators, and so we learn of Mr Lee’s past in communist China, Dimple’s childhood, and some of the band of regulars at Rashid’s establishment. They all come for the opium prepared by Dimple, and as the den’s reputation spreads so does its popularity, drawing customers from all walks of life, including plenty of Westerners on the hippy trail. As time passes, Mumbai changes, and so does the demand for drugs. Despite initial resistance, Rashid begins to sell heroin, and as the city descends into the turmoil of riots and violence, so the lives of Dimple, Rashid and the regulars fall apart.

The book is a bit of a mixed bag, at times hitting great heights. Some passages are annoying and boring, and there is a pointless subplot about murders in the city that never really goes anywhere, but the characters are compelling. There is tragedy in Dimple’s downward trajectory from beauty to ageing heroin addict, and Mr Lee’s story of life in Maoist China is absorbing. With a light touch, Thayil also raises the contradictions of the modern India, with economic boom disguising the rot at the heart of Mumbai. Beggars shit in the street, middle-class boys throw their lives away on heroin, and good Muslim sons have no qualms about dealing cocaine. This is a book that will suck you into a twilight zone of the dreams and nightmares of addiction, if you can get past all that poetic and hallucinatory prose that is : )

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loulamac’s #CBRV review #15: Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

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Before I’d even got started, I resented this book. I’d bought it on a Kindle Daily Deal whim, and then it sat glowering at me from the top of my Kindle’s homepage. I did my best to ignore it, for some reason resistant to reading it, but alphabetical order was not my friend. Eventually, to my great relief, I gave in and read it. Relief because the glowering was no more, and relief because I quite enjoyed it.

The tower of the title is Vishram Society Tower A, a once proudly pink housing development that is now a ‘rain-water stained, fungus-licked grey’. With the slums of Vakola eddying around its feet and planes heading to Mumbai’s airport roaring overhead, Tower A is most decidedly past its best. Which is also true of its residents, such as the chippy social worker Georgina Rego, the snobbish Mrs Puri and (the ‘last man’ himself) retired schoolteacher Masterji . Fearsomely proud of their own respectability and middle class status, the motley group have little but past glories and disdain for each other to cling to. And it is this sense (or lack) of community that is threatened when a ruthless property developer tries to buy them out in order to fulfil his dream of building luxury flats. One by one, the residents accept his offer, until only Masterji is left, queering the deal for everyone with his resistance.

Through the Vishram Society, Adiga presents a bleak picture of modern Mumbai, where economic expansion sees ordinary people suffer. All of the characters are monstrous and sympathetic at the same time, all motivated by greed that could be interpreted as an understandable desire to have their situations improve.  The dark humour in the book is at its most stark, and successful as each resident justifies turning on Masterji, their treatment of him degenerating from criticism, to ostracism and ultimately physical assault. The novel poses uncomfortable questions about the tensions between ‘society’ and individualism, and leaves you wondering how you would react if unexpected wealth was within your grasp. Would it bring out the best in you? Last Man in Tower would suggest not.