Category Archives: South Asian

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

Blue NotebookClearly, James A. Levine is a 21st-century Renaissance man. He’s an endocrinologist and professor at the renowned Mayo Clinic, he co-directs Obesity Solutions, a project of Mayo and Arizona State University (where he also professors), he’s credited with pioneering the treadmill desk, he NEATly Gruves … oh, and he also happens to write bestselling novels.

Perhaps he never sleeps – at least not well. He confesses to as much, about the “vivid nightmares” he endured for years after meeting a Mumbai child prostitute in his detailed “Afterword”; although narrator Meera Simhan provides a superb reading, you’ll need to turn to the actual pages for Levine’s not-to-be-missed additional insights, memories, afterthoughts, and more.

As part of investigating child labor in India, Levine found himself on the infamous “Street of Cages” in Mumbai, “one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country.” There he saw a 15-year-old girl in a pink sari, writing in her blue notebook. “I’ve found that the mantra ‘Education is the answer’ is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.” Levine’s nightmares repeatedly ended with the specter of the girl standing over him in the middle of night. And so he “finally set out to write her story – it spilled onto the paper” in 58 days and became this, his debut novel.

Batuk, as Levine named her, was 9 when her father sold her to a brothel. Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder and after she’s been heinously abused, she is eventually sent to “Common Street” where she lives in a “cell, with its steel bars … the size of a toilet.” Her best friend is beautiful Puneet, who “occupies the nest two down”: “Puneet is the most valuable of us all because he is a boy.”

“I have been blessed with beauty and a pencil,” Batuk introduces herself. “My beauty comes from within. The pencil came from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who is my boss.” That pencil records her shattering life, recalls the stories she was told as a village child, and enables her to create her own as the only means of escaping her unbearable reality. Summoned to a luxury hotel to be a spoiled heir’s temporary sex slave, Batuk takes what solace she can by writing of the horrors she endures on sheets of hotel stationery. Her literacy will preserve her sanity, even when her body can no longer endure.

As unflinchingly brutal as the novel is, Levine cautions that “[t]he pictures I paint onto Batuk’s canvas … are not fully accurate.” These children’s fates are even worse: “Were the burdens of sufferance to be detailed in their duration and intensity, the book would be agonizing to read. I can only open the door but then leave. I paint these images … and apologize that they are only glimpses. More than that I cannot sustain.” Neither, too, could most readers …

Batuk’s uncompromising testimony haunts with its inhumanity, even as it bears witness to a remarkable young girl’s strength, ingenuity, and somehow, hope. Her stories become her salvation – and will also inspire her audience to enable and ensure salvation for others like her, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley

Paris Was the PlaceIn Susan Conley’s debut novel defined by deep relationships, the most intriguing alliances get neglected and overlooked for the more commonplace and predictable. Willow – called Willie – moves to Paris to be closer to her peripatetic brother Luke who was most recently in China bringing safe water to far-flung villages, but has settled in the City of Light for love. Their mother passed away a year earlier, and for Willie who is estranged from their once-philandering-now-reborn-Christian father back in Northern California, Luke is her only constant family.

Poetry professor by day, Willie volunteers at night to teach English to refugee girls held at an asylum center while awaiting their immigration hearings. Her students are too-young survivors of violence and tragedy, and Willie finds herself becoming especially attached to Gita who seeks immediate safety from her local rapist brother-in-law, and hopes to be saved from child marriage to a much older groom in her native India. At the center, Willie finds herself ever hopeful of crossing paths with the girls’ lawyer Macon (named so by his American South loving French mother and Estonian father by way of Canada).

Go ahead and take a few guesses as to what will unfold: we’re talking a gay brother in the 1980s, a “funny man with hiking boots” who makes Willie’s stomach do flips, and a pair of deserting parents (the avoided living father, the longed-after missing mother). Over almost 400 pages – or more than 14.5 hours stuck in the ears (narrator Cassandra Campbell clearly enjoys exaggerating her French accents) – Willie succumbs to an awful lot of navel-gazing as her brother weakens, her lover beckons, and her father flees (again).

A redistribution of self-absorption to beyond-the-comfort-zone exploration – about 75%/25% here – would have been a vast narrative improvement. Repetitive street names and places (more than a dozen references to Avenue Victor Hugo alone!) were also unnecessary – it’s a novel, not a walking tour. Verdict? By condensing Willie’s myopic tendencies in favor of further developing the lives of her refugee students, Conley undoubtedly could have written a more provocative, captivating story only hinted at here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall

Case of the Love CommandosMysteries don’t get any more substantially delicious than this: Vish Puri voiced by Sam Dastor as written by Tarquin Hall, with just the right balance of page-turning entertainment and sociopolitical insight. Before you partake, however, you should know that this is #4 in a series; while each installment provides standalone delight, only reading in order – The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – will provide full satisfaction. Yes, they’re that good. So if you haven’t already, go catch up quickly!

Vish Puri, founder and leader of Most Private Investigators Ltd., is the “winner of six national awards and one international, also. … The Federation of World Detectives saw fit to name [him] super sleuth some years back. [His] picture was on the cover of India Today.” But for now, he’s taking a break from enjoying his laurels (although he always has time for a quick snack), as he’s convinced of “‘nazar lag gayi’ – the evil eye was upon him.” He’s actually failed to solve the Jain Jewelry Heist case, and now he’s somehow managed to get pickpocketed as he prepares to embark on a short family pilgrimage. Still, he insists, “‘My radar is working twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, only.’” And much to his wife Rumpi and his Mummy’s disappointment, Puri decides he can’t take that much-needed break, after all.

Puri’s operative “Facecream had never asked for his help before and he wasn’t about to turn her down.” Facecream’s latest assignment for the Love Commandos [a real-life volunteer organization "dedicated to helping India's lovebirds who want to marry for love"] has gone awry: would-be-groom Ram – of the Dalit, or ‘untouchable,’ caste – has been kidnapped from a Commandos safe house and his bride-to-be Tulsi – a “highborn Hindu” – is afraid her disapproving, all-too-powerful father will stop at nothing to keep the couple apart. And then Ram’s mother is found dead, and the case suddenly becomes far more than a missing persons report.

While Puri and Facecream take on India’s illegal caste system, political intrigue in the highest echelons, genome mapping without consent, marriage brokers, that rare ethical lawyer, and an evil Swedish medical director with heinous secrets, Mummy’s off in the remote mountains and shrines chasing a case of her own. Even as she recovers the stolen wallet in spite of being told by Rumpi that Chubby (her pet name for her inestimable son who only begrudgingly ever accepts her good help) did not want her involved, Mummy savvily realizes the pickpocket and his oversized belligerent wife have far greater riches in sight.

As proud as Puri is (when the evil eye has turned away, only) of his most excellent radar that eventually solves all, he’s not above accepting a few new truths. He knows to be humbly grateful (enough) when Mummy shows her sleuthing prowess once more – the chutney doesn’t fall far from the pakora, after all. And although he still frowns on marriage-without-parental-approval, Ram and Tulsi’s commitment to each other teach him plenty about true love … and thankful is he for Mummy, Rumpi, their three daughters, and a “house … filled with grandchildren and laughter.” He won’t be needing any pilgrimages to appreciate his many blessings.

There remains, however, one question left unanswered … oh mighty triumvirate of Vish/Sam/Tarquin: Where’s #5 already??!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Sleeping DictionaryAfter 10 installments of her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, DC-area-based Sujata Massey goes historical with her latest Dictionary, published this summer after six years in the making. Dictionary marks the debut of a new series Massey intends, The Daughters of Bengal, each set in India. Given a choice between 500 pages in print or 16-plus hours stuck in the ears, choose the latter: Sneha Mathan’s crisp, enhancing narration adds both authenticity and depth.

From beloved daughter Pom (“our father … would sometimes say that a daughter’s life lengthened a father’s life and that for having three strong girls he might live to one hundred”), to freedom fighter Kamala (“‘you are too valuable to risk being arrested’”), to cherished wife and mother (“he held me as if the past had never happened”; “Your loving daughter, Kabita Zeenat Hazel Smith”), Dictionary follows the trajectory of a determined young woman through two of India’s most tumultuous decades when the sprawling country moves from colonial British rule to violently fractured independence.

Orphaned as a young girl in 1930 when a tidal wave destroys her West Bengal village, Pom is reborn as Sarah, a Christian servant at the girls-only Lockwood School. Alternatively abused and ignored, she tenaciously manages to learn more than the privileged British and Indian students. When she’s accused of a terrible crime, she barely escapes; before she reaches her intended destination of Calcutta, she mistakenly disembarks in the smaller city of Kharagpur where her new life as Miss Pamela keeps her trapped for too many years. By the time she finally arrives in Calcutta and becomes Kamala, she has more secrets than baggage. Her love of books – the only vestige of her truncated childhood – saves her again and again, especially in leading her new friends close enough to be family, fellow citizens committed to a greater cause, and even everlasting love.

Combining history, social commentary, espionage (Massey’s literary reputation thus far is based on thrillers, after all), and love-story-across-race-and-class-lines (British-born, Minnesota-raised Massey herself is hapa Indian and German), Dictionary is an intricate journey that occasionally lingers a bit too long (Kamala’s not-quite relationship with Pankaj), then suddenly speeds through rather too conveniently to its ending (no spoilers!). That said, learning the original meaning and history of the title alone was worth the read, especially as Massey adds her own literary layers. Besides, bumpy journeys can often be quite enlightening, detours and all.

Tidbit: Well, how interesting … look what Google pulled up: this no-relation-to-Massey’s-novel, celluloid Sleeping Dictionary features quite the high-power cast (Hugh Dancy as the dispatched English officer, Jessica Alba as the lowly local girl – I just have to cringe for so many reasons! – Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins!). But it never went to the big screen, landing straight to video in 2003. Has anyone seen it?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian African, South Asian, South Asian American

The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

CaretakerFor you DC-area-locals who were wondering, debut novelist A.X. Ahmad is one of us … I tell you that, not to make stalking easy, but to share with you book group groupies that, according to Ahmad’s website, he just might be available to join your gathering “… if you live within driving distance of Washington, D.C.” Really, I’m just quoting!

Let me also say that should you decide to stalk … I mean request! … him at an upcoming meeting, your groupies will have much to discuss. Caretaker is full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect, from post-9/11 profiling, to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous – all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride.

Ahmad’s peripatetic thriller moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world. His protagonist is a former Sikh Indian Army Captain, Ranjit Singh, who is forced to flee his home country after a tragic military disaster, and eventually lands on the posh Martha’s Vineyard hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for owners of empty luxury homes.

Unable to afford to keep his family even in a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter overnight, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.

If you choose to be aurally thrilled, the inimitable Sam Dastor will keep you running for hours (almost 11, to be more accurate). Dastor’s previous suspenseful experiences – he also voices Delhi-based Tarquin Hall‘s fabulous Vish Puri series – expertly enhances Ahmad’s prose. Hopefully Dastor’s reading days are not fully committed; Ahmad’s website also reveals that Caretaker is the “first in a trilogy,” an enticing promise of more chills and thrills ahead.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LowlandSTARRED REVIEW
Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.

Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Arthur Flowers, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, designed by Guglielmo Rossi

I See the Promised LandArthur Flowers, a “blues-based” performance poet, musician, and professor, introduces himself as “Rickydoc Trickmaster,” to render the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a biography for younger readers, as traditional Patua Indian scroll painter Manu Chitrakar brings Flowers’ recitation to vibrant life. Their combined efforts create an outstanding cultural hybrid of unexpected storytelling and graphic traditions. Unlike the majority of children’s titles which celebrate and sustain only MLK’s iconic leadership, this collaboration clearly distinguishes itself by bearing witness (surprise, surprise!) to his stumbles and failures, as well.

Flowers realizes that to understand MLK’s legend is to have awareness of the context in which he rose to prominence: the legacy of slavery, the decimation of a people’s psyche, the continued injustices almost a century after laws were changed. “This is the world into which Martin Luther King is born,” he explains. “This is the world that provide the call he come to answer.”

I See balances the legacy of the epic leader who hit his pinnacle with his defining “I Have a Dream”-speech ["King is at the top of his game"], with his difficult, lesser known personal struggles. Flowers is frank and direct about King’s philandering (his confessions caught on wire-tap by J. Edgar Hoover were sent to King’s family on the day he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize!), his ego (his tendency to “rather lovingly list” his awards in public), his misjudgments (being accused of “being an Uncle Tom” – although Flowers also argues Uncle Tom “has gotten a bad rap”), and his desperate attempts to revive his declining leadership (“run out of Chicago … and his nonviolence strategy has been immolated in the fires of Watts”).

Yes, MLK was human, after all, Flowers contends. But he also reminds, “The Civil War may have delivered the blacks from slavery, but it was Martin Luther King delivered us from bondage.” With Flowers story told, Chitrakar’s panels finished, “… this spell is done. God’s blessings on us all.” A resounding amen to that.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010 (India), 2013 (revised edition, Canada and United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, African American, Indian, South Asian

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters + Author Interview

OleanderGirl.Grandma

When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.

“It’s great to be home,” she confesses, “although I’m getting very little done.” She has less than a month left before classes start again – she teaches writing at the University of Houston – and has started “just a little” that waiting next novel. She’s recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly “overhauled” completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention – and her home cooking!

Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.

Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children’s picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book’s publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni’s personal muse for years – “when I am mired in writer’s block, I rub her belly” – passed away a few months ago. Juno herself “inspired” Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. “‘What’s life without a little adventure?’” Grandma muses; clearly she’s channeling some of Divakaruni’s far-reaching energy.

That “can-do” attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni’s seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi – and her hesitant grandmother – to discover the truth about Korobi’s parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata’s most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?

The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name – Anuradha Roy – for Korobi’s mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character’s name mere coincidence?
It’s a coincidence. It’s a fairly common name in Kolkata – I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.

When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You’ve had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I’m asking as delicately as possible…
Yes, it’s tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven’t lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices – especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society.  [... click here for more]

Author interviewFeature: “An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,” Bookslut.com, August 2013

Readers: Children, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

NarcopolisWithout intending any disrespect to narrator Robertson Dean (in fact, his deep, rich voice makes for a memorable listen), this is a book you must see on the page. If you only go audible, you’ll miss you too much from the very first sentence onward: “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero and heroin of this story …” – the italics I’ve added here should demonstrate why. Additionally, unless you were reading line by line, you would never realize that the “Prologue” is a single sentence which spans seven pages. You would miss the poetry (literally – Jeet Thayil published four poetry collections before this, his debut novel), the graphical rules of stanza rhyming, unexpected surreal line drawings, and more. You would, no doubt, have to settle for a far diminished experience, which would certainly seem an ironic shame for a novel infused with the maximum highs found in the drug-worshipping underworld of 1970s and ’80s Bombay.

Shortlisted in 2012 for both the Man Booker Prize and the Man Asian Literary PrizeNarcopolis begins and ends with “Bombay,” as word, destination, memory: “All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.” The narrator Dom (whose full name won’t be revealed until book’s end) arrives in the legendary city, ousted from New York City following a drug arrest. Amidst Bombay’s opium dens – that soon give way to houses of heroin-worship – Dom introduces the unforgettable characters who populate his hallucinatory journey. His leading lady is an emasculated hijra prostitute named Dimple who becomes an object of obsession for ex-patriot poet and painter Newton Xavier. Beyond the brothel, Dimple’s closest relationship is with an elegant older Chinese addict, Mr. Lee, who escapes his native country during political purges only to long for return, even in death.

From the ancient Chinese explorer Zheng He, castrated as a boy and trained as an imperial eunuch, to an everyday businessman who thinks nothing of murdering a “housewife hooker” and remorselessly going home to his extended family, Dom proves to be a nimble guide, unblinkingly navigating hidden corners and revealing sordid details. He serves as witness to “those boys and girls and men and women who had been taken by garad heroin”; he is the self-appointed amanuensis who “say[s] the whole name and remember[s], that was the way to honor the dead.”

Thayil’s biography for the September 2013 internationales literaturfestival Berlin discloses that Narcopolis “refers back to Thayil’s own experiences with drug and alcohol addiction,” certainly raising questions about how much of his debut effort is autobiographical. Thayil also chooses to stay with the familiar in his current work-in-progress: he shares in a July 2012 South Asia Journal interview that the poet/painter Newton Xavier returns as the main character in his next novel, Saint X. If the best advice for writers is to write what they know, Thayil’s efforts are certainly evidence that doing so will reap just rewards.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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