Before it even came out, Narcopolis was hailed as the successor to De Quincey and Burroughs, a new opium fuelled haze set in the mean streets of Bombay of the 70’s. The poet Jeet Thayil’s first novel undoubtedly informed with that sensitive use of language that has characterized his poetry. So much is certainly true. The language takes you by the imagination and leads you through the pages like the slow drift of smoke. There is an ‘I’ narrator, Dom Ullis, who like Thayil hails from the South, who escapes after an unfortunate incident in New York to find Shuklaji Street and Rashid’s opium den in Bombay. He discovers piyalis of opium expertly served by the eunuch Dimple who engages with him in intellectual discussion. And when he’s on his flights of opium fantasy, Dom’s language of choice is English.
People come and go and slide in and out of the narrative. Some of them we never meet again, though their introduction seems promising, like the legless painter Newton Pinto Xavier who emerges in a kurta spattered with what might be semen stains, and who seems to have been based on Francis Newton Souza. The narrator introduces the painter to the charms of the piyali and Dimple and then abruptly vanishes from the story for a long while.
Dimple finds the Chinese opium den that belongs to Mr Lee who escaped from Mao’s China and the torments of the Cultural Revolution. As easily as a pipe being passed from hand to hand the story moves to China – opium being the link – and slips back again. Time also slips away and Shuklaji Street sees an influx of new smokers and new drugs. Heroin arrives and the nature of drug trips changes becoming more violent and psychedelic as Bombay breaks out, appropriately it would seem given the context, into communal riots. Rashid’s opium den becomes a night club with neon strips and flash boys doing cocaine, the ‘new drug for the new Bombay’.
All the contradictions one expects in Indian life are there – a devout Muslim running an opium den while bringing up his family with strictness and cheating on his wife, a Hindu slipping into a church to pray which helps her briefly escape from the mob, the beggarwoman who treats the street like the living room. These are things that the foreign reader has come to expect and whether one likes it or not are inevitable in a book written by an Indian who has lived and worked abroad. Though Thayil also has some sharp statements to make about the hippies and backpackers who come to India for their version of slum tourism.
There are oddities in the book – the story of the stone man for example which seems to have been introduced for effect and ultimately winds down to Rashid’s hammer and not much else. Dimple’s intellectualization – over the years she acquires enough education to hold forth on those noted French opium users, Baudelaire, Burroughs and Cocteau which springs a false note. Soporo, a recovering drug addict who runs a rehab holds forth on the complicated rhymes of thirteenth century poets. However you could possibly put it all down to hallucinations – in a world fueled by opium, nothing is but what is not. It doesn’t seem to matter that the story just drifts here and there by guess and that a rainy sky is like someone’s black eye.
All in all Narcopolis is about smoke and mirrors. As it is about rotting orange peel and cockroaches scurrying through the garbage and the cages at Kamathipura and the flesh traders on Grant Road. And four letter words and the expected violence. And there’s Thayil’s own pleasure in his language, a poet’s pleasure rather than a novelist’s which starts the book on one long sentence and lets reality go slip sliding away.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Published by Penguin Press, April 2012
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