Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
In a side alley off a busy road, nestled between fruit sellers, tea counters, street vendors and a collection of brothels is Rashid’s Opium den. Men lie on their backs in the silence of dark rooms, slowly smoking away as life continues on the bustling streets of the metropolis. Narcopolis is a no holds barred look at the drug and prostitution scene of Bombay from the 70’s to the 90’s.
The central character is Dimple. After being gelded at a young age, she is given away to an unspecified priest by her mother. Still a young ‘girl’ she ends up in a brothel in Mumbai and is put to work. She is introduced to Opium use by Mr Lee, a chines refugee, as a means to dealing with the pains of brothel life. On his death she inherits his family’s magnificent ancient opium pipe with which she secures a job in Rashid’s place. Dimple moves between gender, religion, occupation and even names and is a useful character to explore the diversity of the city.
The story is based around her interactions with a variety of other characters, all connected by their common desire for drugs. I particularly enjoyed Mr Lee, through whom we get to learn of life in Mao’s China and of his experience of being in the army. Mr Lee eventually escapes communist China and ends up living in Bombay. Ironically after being a source of healing for Dimple, Mr Lee dies in her care, bitter and lonely in a foreign land.
Over time, Dimple lives at Rashid’s house and although he has many wives he uses her for his sexual enjoyment. We also see a shift in the drug scene as Rashid’s and many other opium dens are shut down and the far more potent and dangerous heroin takes root in Bombay. In a bid to avoid the shutting down of the den, a suspected agitator is threatened with a death that could easily be blamed on the Patha Maar or stone killer. This refers to an unsolved case where mainly homeless people were killed by having their heads crushed with a large rock while sleeping. This horrific crime epitomises the struggle of the cities poorest.
Thayil also brings to our attention the frightening memories of the religious riots that gripped the city in the early nineties. The associated fear had left people staying indoors and transformed the city into a ghost town. Fruit and vegetable supplies had been crippled but chemicals were always readily available. The infiltration of heroin into the market and an increase in violence in the story coincide as the author describes some horrific beatings and murders.
The book is a collection of stories, told by a variety of story tellers, all linked together by their addiction to narcotics. Pimps, abusive husbands, drug dealers, tourists, and even a famous poet are infused into this tale of drugs above all else. Strong friendships are developed but this line is quite pertinent: ‘We had once been friends, but I’d never thought of coming to see her or to ask after her. There was always some sort of crisis, a crisis every day, and heroin trumped friendship every time’. Naturally with the topic at hand, many relationships are also inappropriate, false and destructive.
The narration is interspersed by word for word accounts of the drug users thoughts during a ‘hit’. It is a fantasy/reality account of these trips where inanimate objects come to life and the users have conversations with the dead. It is an insightful account of how drugs muddle the mind and why they are a popular source for escaping unpleasant realities.
While possibly being a good reflection of the city of the time, the book didn’t match up to my experiences of this city as I know it today. While its worthy to note that 25 years is a long time, I expected the book to give me more of a sense of the vibrancy and energy that Bombay had back in the day. As much as I enjoyed the controversial subject and the informal style of writing, I have read other books on Mumbai where the authors portray the sights, sounds and even the smells of the city in a way that got me excited about the place. I expected more stories about the city, with possibly less of a focus on just the drug scene.