Narcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.
As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.
As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.
Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.
It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :
An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”
The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.
The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.
Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.