Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s Booker prize nominated debut novel, takes us on a tour of 1970’s Mumbai, then called Bombay, and its seedier spots. We are introduced to the inhabitants and patrons of the picaresque Shuklaji Street, home to Rashid’s world renowned opium khana. Here drugs are cheap and life even cheaper.
Amongst the motley bunch of characters we meet, are the unhappily married Rashid, the idealistic transsexual Dimple, her gruff but kindly benefactor, opium vendor and exile Mr Lee as well as the unhinged and murderous misogynist Rumi. What these characters share in common is a compulsion to take refuge in the escape drugs provide, swathing themselves in a narcotic haze attempting to insulate themselves, at least temporarily, from the harsh reality of their everyday lives.
While the characters suspend time and space in the cocoon provided by opium, all around them Bombay, and India as a whole, is rapidly changing. The primary way these changes enter the characters’ lives is through the drug culture which they participate in, as it moves from opium to cocaine arriving finally at the horrific destination of ‘chemical’, low quality heroin cheaply cut and adulterated with rat poison, which becomes ubiquitous due to it being imported cheaply and easily from neighbouring Pakistan. This device works well, the drugs providing fitting metaphors, opium standing for an older, slower world of tradition and heroin bringing with it a trajectory of addiction and decline which matches the furious pace of contemporary global capitalism.
As is expected with narcotic inspired narratives, time is non-linear. Death does not guarantee that a character will not pop up a few pages later as a hallucination or in ghost form to casually partake in conversation. Reminiscent of Burroughs, apocalyptic imagery looms large in the minds of these pharmaceutically addled characters. I lost count of the numerous scenes depicting characters experiencing dreams involving end of world visions dripping in portents. I feel these passages are the line which will divide the books audience, who will either love or hate them. I found such scenes tried my patience, their prose tending towards the purple end of the colour spectrum.
Having overdosed on the vicarious thrills of narcotic narratives provided by Burroughs and Hubert Selby Jr. in my teenage years, I find there is only so much drugged up psychedelia one can write before veering dangerously close to Jim “follow the snake to the lake” Morrison territory. If you are partial to that kind of thing you may very well love Narcopolis, if not you may find it a frustrating and unrewarding read. On the plus side I found Thayil’s dark sense of humour to be amusing, particularly in a scene where a character expounds on children’s unsuitability for living in the world due to their small size and stupidity. Sadly this positive isn’t enough to sustain the entire story.
Personally I found Narcopolis to be an unremarkable novel; I just couldn’t shake off a sense of ‘been there done that’. Although the representation of the characters may reflect the realities of a life of drug addiction, the problem lies in the fact that addiction narratives the world over are quite similar regardless of setting. This results in reality taking on the appearance of cliché. I say this not to diminish the affliction of addiction, but rather to illustrate the difficulties inherent in its portrayal. Given that, I would find it hard to recommend Narcopolis to anyone but the most hardened fan of drug inspired literature.