It’s creepy … yet kind of cool … to think that Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis, once skulked the opium dens of Mumbai, India.
Thayil—an addict for 20 years—undoubtedly writes from close experience about that sordid world of pimps and prostitutes, drug addiction and sexual deviance, grotesque crime and heinous punishment. It fascinates as much as it shocks—even as you recoil in horror, knowing you’ll probably never set foot in Mumbai’s innards, you’re dying to know more about them.
Thayil, recipient of the 2013 South Asian Literature Prize and shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, doesn’t give us a shock-and-awe kind of story, nor an account of an addiction per se (though if you know little about drugs, you’ll learn a lot). In fact, ruthlessness, filth and depravity—the guts of Mumbai’s underworld, and what makes it turn—along with opium-dependent existence turn out to simply be smokescreens for a story about genuine love and deep friendship … and how they exist where you’d least expect them.
Narcopolis also tells a story about choices—those who have them and those who don’t. It takes place in India in the 1970s, when Mumbai was still called Bombay, and political and social turbulence reigned supreme. Thayil’s story, though, could have happened … and still can … in any metropolis where poverty, illiteracy and deep-set economic inequality dictate people’s lives, where many seem pre-destined for “the usual ending,” as he writes, due to a “fatherless childhood, an adolescence of petty crime, garad (smack) or alcohol… more crimes and illness.”
Witness the eunuch, Dimple, main character of Narcopolis. Abject poverty and other forces beyond her control drive Dimple’s mother into selling her eight-year-old child. That exchange leads to the crudest form of castration—its pain will torture Dimple in later life and leave her with no option but to seek the relief of opium.
Dimple naturally wonders why people with choices in life she did not have grovel on the floor in front of her, desperate for fixes. Why, Dimple asks … and we feel Thayil ask it too … do people who seemingly have it all—education, jobs, families, and prospects for the future—become addicts?
That impossible question never gets an answer, although it feels at times as if Thayil pushes readers to pass judgment on those for whom drugs become a deliberate choice. Why, for example, does an educated young man like Dom Ulisis (most likely a character based on Thayil himself) choose to while away the best years of his life in an opium den on Mumbai’s Shuklaji Street after a bust by cops in New York and deportation to India?
We want to love Salim, a petty black market scotch and cocaine peddler whose powerful boss regularly sodomizes him. Not so, the renowned artist Newton Xavier, a drunk and a junkie with fame and fortune and scores of admirers around the world. His choices? He gets wasted on opium simply because he has never tried it before. He has sex with Dimple the eunuch just for the heck of it. Then his wealth and standing allow him simply to walk away from it all. He cleans up and makes an appearance in front of adoring, unsuspecting fans … to “give them what they want.”
Thayil leaves the reader with a realization. The line between those born with choices and those not so lucky is very thin. The side of the divide you’re born on is purely random.
Narcopolis doesn’t seem to have a plot, which makes it a difficult read at times. Thayil offers a series of vignettes, at times gritty and raw, at times melodious and soft. Setting his narrative against the backdrop of a changing India seems overarching, and parts of the text feel long … and even unnecessary. Pages dedicated to books read by Dimple (who educates herself) serve little purpose, and the same could be said of chapters on Mr. Lee, a Chinese drug dealer who introduces Dimple to opium as an antidote for her pain. Mr. Lee’s tales of the horrors of a communist regime he fled do highlight his unusual friendship with Dimple, in whom he confides the story of his lost life and loves. Before he dies, Mr. Lee asks Dimple to bury him in China. She never succeeds in getting the ashes there and always reproaches herself for being unable to honor her friend’s wish.
Mr. Lee bequeaths Dimple his opium pipes—Chinese, the real deal—eventually taking her to an opium den run by a character called Rashid. The opium pipes bring widespread fame to the den—so much fame that that people from all over the world and all walks of life pass through it. Rashid’s competitors are hell bent on destroying it. In that den, Rashid and Dimple build a rock-solid friendship through the years.
In those years, Bombay becomes Mumbai. Drugs change from opium and garad to cocaine and harder stuff. Rashid gets clean, and other characters that flit in and out of this story disappear or die. Dimple too.
Still, Rashid cannot forget Dimple. Dimple, he tells Dom Ulisis, haunts him every day. She is always there, always will be. “Dead do not always become ghosts,” Dimple told Rashid. “We are like dreams that travel from one person to another. We return, but only if you love us.”
Early in Narcopolis, when Dom first arrives in Mumbai, a fellow opium smoker—an educated middle-class man—mockingly tells him all he has in common with “these people is smoke.” Indeed, the characters in this story find themselves separated by economics, education, religion, politics, circumstance. Opium links them … but more than opium binds them.
Enduring relationships prove that everyone, everywhere, high or low, is worthy of friendship and love.
Savita Iyer-Ahrestani is a freelance writer based in State College, Pennsylvania. Her articles and essays have appeared in CNN.com, Vogue (Mumbai, India edition), Mint (India’s largest business daily) Business Week, Vegetarian News, and Spirituality & Health magazine. She co-authored “Brandstorm: Surviving and Thriving in the New Consumer-Led Marketplace” (Palgrave Macmillan 2012) and is currently working on a novel.