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May 23, 2012

Book Notes - Jeet Thayil "Narcopolis"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis is a brilliant debut novel, one that vividly captures Bombay's drug culture from the 1960s to the present day.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Jeet Thayil's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Narcopolis:

'Piya To Ab To Aaja' a/k/a 'Monica, My Darling' by R.D. Burman

My novel Narcopolis is set in Bombay, mostly in the seventies and eighties, which, as some people will tell you, was the Golden Age of Hindi cinema, a phrase that should ordinarily get your hyperbole radar up and pinging. In any case, in those days, the city's soundtrack was made up almost entirely of hit songs from the movies. It was a soundtrack you heard everywhere, but especially on the street, and by that I mean on radios, on communal television sets and on people's lips. Without question, the most prolific composer of the time was the ridiculously talented R.D. Burman. As with other Bollywood personalities, he worked too much, composing for 300 plus movies in his brief career, which, as you might imagine, gave his work a wild erratic quicksilver quality; erratic, yes, but when he was good there was no one like him and even when he wasn't good he was interesting. He was a kind of sponge. He heard everything and everything he heard somehow made its way into the music he composed. If you listen, you will hear Demis Roussos, John Barry, the Twist, Latin percussion, Arabic rhythm, a wall of violins and a hundred other things. There is a passage in Narcopolis, an unreliable passage, which is a description of 'Piya To Ab To Aaja,' a tune many people know as 'Monica, My Darling.' The opium smoking narrator's fractured description has very little to do with the reality of the song, though the reality is pretty out there all by itself. Look at it on YouTube and marvel at the man in the matador costume who proclaims his love for Monica from a giant gilded bird cage; at Monica herself, the actress Helen, whose dress is caught on a nail and of course she must fling it off to reveal a flesh-colored bodysuit, the incredibly popular Helen, who was not the best dancer in the world, but went above and beyond when it came to energetic gyration; at the weird lyrics; at the man panting like a dog and the way the panting becomes the beat; and, above and beneath it all, the solid melodies, the exuberant orchestration, the infectious groove.

'Saturday Night Fever' by The Bee Gees

If Hindi film music was the soundtrack of the street, this was the soundtrack of the middle class home and the disco, for that is what a nightclub was called in the city of Bombay all those years ago. Improbable as it may seem to us today, this undistinguished movie and its tinny beat set an Indian city's fashion sense and its musical tastes, or at least a slice thereof. The Bombaywallah, the male Bombaywallah, that is, took pains to copy John Travolta's elephant-bells and shiny shirts, and numerous college-age bands, or "beat groups," covered this song. I heard the album recently on vinyl and I have to say it filled me with all kinds of contradictory impulses: I wanted to snort cocaine and work out at one and the same time.

'Dum Maro Dum' by R.D. Burman

Loosely translated as 'Take a Hit, Go On, Take a Hit' this is the title track from the movie Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, and from the opening guitar arpeggios to the melody, which puts a hundred tiny hooks under your skin, to Asha Bhosle's whisky and cigarettes voice, the song is hypnotic and unforgettable and, strange to say, it holds up after all these years. As a character in Narcopolis says: this is the song that got me on drugs (which is something a drug dealer once told me). R.D. Burman wrote this one too, and Mr. Burman, or Pancham as he was known, was and is a major influence on the music that comes out of Bombay's unstoppable film industry. You don't have to know Hindi to know what this song is about, all you need to do is listen to Asha's stoned lilt as she sings the chorus, and watch, on YouTube, as the hippies suck on their chillums.

STD by Sridhar/Thayil

Ok, time for a confession, and a clarification. First the confession: please be alert for a possible plug, or three, that will follow this sentence. And the clarification: to talk about a soundtrack for Narcopolis is, for this author at least, an exercise in theory or conjecture. While writing Narcopolis, I lived alone in an apartment in the north Bombay suburb of Bandra. I had no newspapers, no television, no Internet, no wife, no children, no pets. I had email on my phone and that was enough. For relaxation, I read books or listened to music. I never listened to music while I was working. The beat and the melody interfered with the words and music in my head. During that entire period, if I listened to music at all, it was the music I wrote with my band, Sridhar/Thayil (ST), for our album STD, so if there was a soundtrack to Narcopolis it was probably those songs. On April 12, the day Narcopolis was released in the United States, we launched STD on the Internet, and it is available for download on

'Babur in London' by Edward Rushton

I also listened to the music my friend, the Swiss-based British composer Edward Rushton was writing for our opera Babur in London, for which I wrote the libretto. The opera had its world premiere in Zurich two weeks before Narcopolis was released in the United States, with shows to follow in cities in the UK and in India. A novel, an album and a libretto, all debuts, that appeared within the space of a few weeks—and that pretty much encapsulates the story of my life, as it was lived in writing, over the past five or so years.

'Kind of Blue' by Miles Davis

There are other songs that occur in Narcopolis, for example a violent apocalyptic track by Jimi Hendrix, and an unnamed track by the unnamed Talking Heads, and another by Men at Work (because of a reference to a Bombay drug den), but I'm not going to talk about those; instead, I'm going to talk about 'Kind of Blue,' which a character in the novel plans to give a lecture about but never does. When I hear the song and the album, even today, long after quitting heroin, well, maybe not that long, ten years is a drop in heroin time, so, as I say, when I hear this song it is for me the aural equivalent of heroin, because time stops, or it lags imperceptibly, or it lengthens, or contracts, I'm not sure which. The point is: heroin alters time. And heroin time is slightly behind or ahead, because heroin takes the beat, heartbeat, drumbeat, any kind of beat, and plays with it. The time signature in this song is heroin, and it gives you, the listener, an idea of what it must be like to take heroin, because it makes you inhabit the slow motion spaces between the beats and between the notes. Even ten years after, when I hear this song, I praise the nod.

Jeet Thayil and Narcopolis links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

A.V. Club review
The Economist review
Guardian review
Independent review
India Today review
Just My Type review
Philadelphia City Paper review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review

The Hindu profile of the author
Weekend Edition profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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