Anupa Mistry lives in Toronto and is the editor of The FADER Canada.
Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is a drug novel about middle-class loafers, Nargis-idolizing hijras, artist-zealots, and sad old men, all twisted on opium in the back alleys and clandestine khanas (dens) of ‘70s and ‘80s Bombay. It’s an unsettling, almost alienating, story, and a very different sort of Indian novel—in a censorial culture obsessed with taboos and propriety, Thayil’s gone and made one of his protagonists a prostitute and hijra, the uniquely Indian transgender class. He evaluates tensions, the dichotomy between slippy, libertine values and ingrained collective conservatism throughout his Man Booker-shortlisted novel. Two-thirds through: Rashid, an obstinate, charismatic khana owner, escorts his mistress Dimple home from the theatre. It’s his eighth time seeing the 1971 Dev Anand classic Haré Rama Haré Krishna, and he’s filmi-drunk: this is the film that made him a hippie, that got him into drugs. He bellows the film’s most famous song, “Dum Maro Dum,” but omits the final line—”Hare Krishna, Hare Ram”—because it is just “too Hindu for him.” That reflexive, cartoonish obstinacy is all too familiar—I’ve got family members, being Indian, who refuse to buy Old Navy T-shirts made in Pakistan.