February 27, 2012 by markstani
Spanning three decades in the life of Mumbai’s notorious Shuklaji Street, where five-rupee prostitutes cower in cages by ‘roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and the deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared’, it’s a fair guess that Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (pub. Faber) is unlikely to nudge its way onto Oprah’s summer reading list any time soon.
In it, Thayil, a poet and reportedly a former addict himself, chronicles the slow demise of the city’s opium dens in such a sure-footed way he makes it almost nostalgic: by the end of the book, the old dens with their mysterious pipewallahs and undeniable air of serenity are all but gone, replaced by the influx of low-grade heroin or ‘garad’ – ‘unrefined shit they throw away when they make good-quality maal for junkies in rich countries.’
It is no spoiler to say that Thayil’s fractured cast do not anticipate happy endings. They include a famous artist, a eunuch prostitute and a failed businessman who frequent a den owned by a man called Rashid: a den so legendary it attracts so-called ‘opium tourists’ from Europe who come to ‘sit around for hours, drinking tea and taking pictures, collecting souvenirs to show off back home.’
It is easy to imagine that only someone who has partaken in the drug could summon such vivid, believable descriptions of its dream-like effects; that only a poet could impart those hallucinations to paper.
Thayil’s characters – with the exception of Dimple, the eunuch prostitute in question, for whom it is impossible not to feel at least some degree of sympathy – are largely transients within the author’s broader narrative of the demise of opium in the face of quicker, sharper, ever more dangerous alternatives. Towards the end, with Rashid’s den long since bricked up, his grown-up son sells cocaine in modern nightclubs with glass elevators and cylindrical light fittings – ‘new drugs for the new Bombay’.
By then, we have been led through approaching thirty years of unimaginable squalor, floods and religious riots, all of which exhibit humanity in its most helpless, hopeless, half-conscious state. We have sojourned in China, from where we have followed the path of the famous pipes all the way to Shuklaji Street in the hands of an escaped Red Army conscript.
If, along the way, some of Thayil’s philosophical references border on the unfathomable, you get the impression that is almost the point: this is a book that is all the better for its unfathomability, above all of why it should work, why it should have you tearing through its pages and ultimately leave you craving more. Then again, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that a book about opium should turn out to be so utterly, compellingly addictive.