Sunday, June 29, 2014

On Reading Jeet Thayil's Novel "Narcopolis"

After a long time spent in prevaricating, I have gotten down to reading Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis. No, this isn't a case of hero-worship (Jeet is actually younger than me) for a person from my community, but a frank appreciation of a novel which is set in my urbs prima, Bombay. I know Jeet Thayil as an essayer of fine prose and poetry, and even our native places in Kerala aren't far from each other.

Narcopolis is a many-layered piece about a man castrated to be a eunuch. I guess this is a system that is prevalent in India, only in India, that is. Here we have the eunuchs come to our home and if the child is born with inadequate sexual organs he is castrated to be an eunuch. A eunuch thus castrated can only become a beggar or a sex slave. Nothing could be sadder than a story of an eunuch (nowadays called transgender) in the class- and community-conscious Indian society. The transgender Dimple also works in an opium den set in the seventies when Thayil came of age and what is interesting is his re-creation of those days.

Through his exquisitely crafted prose – having the ring of poetry – Thayil recreates an era that has been forgotten. Those days in Bombay opium was easily available. There was marijuana in every street corner; there were the dons of Dongri who managed the narcotics business with diligence. Today the dons are on the run and drugs aren't easily available. The opium dens of those days have closed down; the curtains have come down on an era of hedonistic excesses. Commissioner JRF Ribeiro the supercop and his brave men have seen to that.

The author moves easily across boundaries and time lines as is seen from Lee's – a top-ranking Chinese official – story. Lee is marking his days in Bombay and is Dimple's customer. Dimple is employed by Rashid in his opium den and Thayil reels out a stream of slang terms which stands for the use and abuse of the narcotic. Rashid is a man damaged by the profession and indulges in excesses of sex and gluttony. He seems like a man beyond redemption.

And, of course, there is the six-page opening sentence which as Thayil says "is a good sentence." I find nothing wrong in that since Joyce has a page full of outdated degrees and qualifications in Ulysses.

The famous Malayalam writer MT Vasudevan Nair has said that every novel puts across a novel concept, a novel idea, something for the society to ruminate on. I can't fish out the original Malayalam words, but he said as much. True Thayil has presented the unrecorded past of Bombay as a novel idea of which we may be unaware, but in which surely have played a part.

My only complaint with Narcopolis is that it ends too soon. I would have liked to see some more resolution and closures. I would have liked to read more about Dimple's life and about Ramesh, Rumi, as he is called. He has some interesting quotes ascribed to him: "This chooth country, this cunt country, how the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs?" But then a novel has to end somewhere doesn't it?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Rant: Why Indian Writing in English Has Failed to Evolve

In this Video I expound (rather pompously, rantingly, I might add) on why I think Indian Writing in English has failed to evolve. Do have a look and please, please, comment.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Fight in Train, Mollywood Styleu!

It's strange how I meet these types in trains. While I have written about some of these types who - I thought - existed only in movies and stale comedy shows, this time it was downright hilarious. On my recent trip to Kerala, I mean. It was something out of a Mollywood movie.

There was this army office who got into the Durondo to Ernakulam with a quarter of whisky, or more, in him. And next to him there was this officerly man with his wife and daughter. After dinner wifey - mine - and I lay down to sleep, as did the others. The inebriated officer was supposedly sleeping on the lower berth opposite mine. There is a passage and next to that are the two seats of the officerly man, now occupied by his dowdy-looking wife. Her husband lay down on the berth opposite mine, which was above the army officer's. 

This officer, being sloshed, was writhing a lot, the whisky churning inside him. In the night the woman sat up and alleged that he had touched her. The husband came down, caught the army officer and slapped him. They were tight slaps administered dexterously, as if by the police. Then, I still don't believe it, nor would you, he unbuckled his belt to beat his adversary who was threatening to call the police.

The coach attendant came hearing the commotion and offered to call the ticket checker. This rather authoritarian man checked tickets and asked for identification. The army officer turned to be a captain and the officerly man turned out to be an officer, a big shot, in the Intelligence Bureau (IB). The ticket checker didn't know what to do with two government officers and said that they would have to get down at the next station if he complained to the control room.

The IB officer then sensed the situation would get ugly if he and family were stranded in some godforsaken station in the Konkan and said he was sorry. The army officer, too, sensing that the situation had gotten out of hand, offered to move to another berth. The man sleeping in the berth above mine offered to take the vacated berth below. 

Now both government officers were in opposite bunkers near the roof. I thought again a war of words would ensue with fistcuffs being the final resort. I steeled myself for this assault.

Hm, nothing like that happened. Apparently both realised they were employees of the state and started exchanging hesitant pleasantries, which then escalated to a camaraderie which I have not even seen in childhood friends. 

Happy ending? No, there is an unsettling ending to this saga. The newly made friendship resulted in chatter throughout the night while the rest of us - including wifey - spent a restless night turning hither and thither on our narrow beds. 

No sleep was had by anyone of us in the coupe. More of these travel anecdotes later, friends, keep reading....