Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis begins and ends with Bombay. The opening lines declare the city as the main “heroin” of the story, revealing through this subtle wordplay how Bombay in the 1970s – now Mumbai – emerges as the main protagonist as well as
the ultimate drug, the deepest addiction in Thayil’s tale. Indeed, the city and the pleasures it promises become irresistible not only to the characters but also to curious readers searching for a “fix” in its pages. Bombay unfolds on Shuklaji Street, its “red light” district, which Thayil describes as: “a fever grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, and secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at night. It wasn’t much of a street. It was narrow and congested, and there was an endless stream of cars and trucks and handcarts and bicycles. But it stretched roughly from Grant Road to Bombay Central and to walk along it was to tour the city’s fleshiest parts, the long rooms of sex and nasha.” There’s Rashid’s khana (opium den), where men gather to smoke opium from an antique Chinese pipe; there’s the hijra (eunuch) brothel, where desires are haggled and fulfilled; there are the endless shops where cocaine and black-market whiskey are procured; there is the strange intermingling in the air of longing, charred flesh and sweetness.
It is a difficult task, one that is in the end futile, to summarize a narrative like Narcopolis that is not driven by plot because any attempt neutralizes the space and atmosphere constructed through the often brutal poetry of Thayil’s words. There are no mysteries to solve, no dramatic conflict that needs resolution, no good guys or bad guys. A city changes its name, tensions brew between groups who exist in intimate proximity but whose religious, economic, and social realities differ vastly, old drugs go out of style as new ones come into fashion and characters are introduced only to disappear. The narrative constantly shifts its focus as fragments come into prominence and then peter out, just to reappear again at a later time. Thayil’s prose both captures and mirrors the multiplicity and heterogeneity of the cityscape’s inhabitants and its visitors. Narcopolis is about how life is lived and experienced within the coordinates of the city through a host of characters, luminous with history, failings and addictions. All of Thayil’s main characters use drugs, but the theme of addiction extends further to encompass violence, lust, and even memories. It would be misleading, however, to characterize it as a novel about addiction – such a novel would, in many ways, be a much less interesting read. Rather, Narcopolis is more concerned with how people survive, how they transform and how the past returns to haunt them, and the many fraught and tender relationships formed out of compelling circumstances.
Take Dimple – the central character in the world of Shuklaji Street – a hijra who, castrated at a young age, works at both the brothel and the opium den. Her complex characterization exemplifies the oftentimes hidden humanism that lies deep at the core of the novel. Her introduction to drugs by a Chinese refugee, Mr. Lee, was initially a way for her to manage the physical pain of castration; eventually, however, it becomes a mode of survival, a means for her to simply exist, to wait for something different to come. Constantly yearning to transform herself, the drugs allow her a space to dream and thus to open up buried and lost slivers of memories. As we follow her journey, filled with minor triumphs and major regrets, we realize that the most compelling aspect of her character is not her physical alterity or her underground credentials, but the intensely human relationships that coalesce and shape her being. The unconventional domestic situation that slowly entangles Dimple and Rashid, the opium den owner, is the closest thing we have to a romance in the novel. Yet, the love that they share is so tempered by various power relations that it verges on the inexpressible, the sublime. That is, it simply exists. The kinship that develops between Mr. Lee and Dimple turns heartbreaking when he comes back to haunt her in his afterlife, because, as the narrator reminds us, “grievances did not disappear with death, if anything they become more pronounced.” Mr. Lee’s storyline, forming just a few chapters within the novel, manages to capture the breadth and depth of time, of a life in exile. His escape from China during the Cultural Revolution and resettlement in India speaks to the themes of migration, home, and nostalgia that thread through the novel’s narrative. His dying wish to have his ashes returned to his country of birth is entrusted to an unlikely heir, Dimple, and her failure to fulfill the wish gestures at profound human flaw and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a home place.
Narcopolis belongs to a long tradition of Indian authors in English who are keen on representing the outcast and marginalized – the criminals and addicts of society. Its emotional core lies in showing what connects these people and the dreams they share that resonate and intoxicate beyond its pages. As the narrator explains: “Dreams leak from head to head; they travel between those who face in the same direction, that is to say, lovers, and those who share the bonds of intoxication and death.”
Vinh Nguyen is a PhD candidate in English at McMaster University. He lives in Toronto.