Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil [A Review]

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil comes with weighty expectations. A 2012 Booker Prize shortlister, set in an opium den in 1970’s Old Bombay, its exhales a contradictory promise of a story both exotic and nostalgic.

Women from all over India descend on Bombay, hoping to find work and send money to their families back home. More than a few end up on Shuklaji Street, working in one of the brothels, kept in cages, used and abused, their earnings kept by the brothel keepers. Also on Shuklaji Street is Rashid’s, an opium den. Rashid’s is the centre of Narcopolis, its diverse characters are all connected to it in some way. Like overlapping petals, together they give broad view of Bombay’s dark underbelly.

Here people say you should introduce only your worst enemy to opium,

Working in Rashid’s is Dimple, who prepares the opium pipes for Rashid’s customers when she isn’t working in the hijra’s brothel (‘hijras’ are eunuchs, intersex and transgender peoples). But after years of addiction the drug is taking its toll and the brothel owner is complaining that she is little use to him anymore.

Dimple was introduced to opium by Mr Lee once she began suffering from body aches. Like Dimple, Lee, a Chinese refugee, has a past he would rather forget and pain that he takes opium to subside. It is a past that includes seeing his father succumb to opium addiction after being denounced and imprisoned by the Communist Party and his own experiences of torture, imprisonment and heartbreak at the hands of the same regime.

This is our reality. Anything can happen to anyone at any time.

Rashid, whose opium den it is, began as a skinny narcotic entrepreneur with big dreams, inspired by the glamorised image of drug use from cinema. His success, in part due to Mr Lee’s pipes and Dimple’s skill with them has made his den internationally known and made himself fat and complacent. Drugs are now in easy supply in Bombay and the opium dens of old are closing. New competition has arrived in the form of garad, low grade heroin smuggled into India from Pakistan. But Rashid is reluctant to change his business model even though he uses garad himself.

Narcopolis was a difficult read for me. At times it consists of rambling, pages-long sentences. It is sometimes narrated by one of the characters, sometimes the perspective is omniscient and third-person. Memories, histories, vignettes and anecdotes mingle with opium dreams. Some passages I found nonsensical, at other times I wondered if it was all just a little pretentious. I found myself losing interest, searching for a story, a quest, an obstacle, wondering where it was all going with a nagging doubt that I was missing something.

All this was very disappointing. With Narcopolis, I was perhaps guilty of forming some preconceptions. Set in an opium den of 1970’s Old Bombay, it sounded like something that would inspire a sort of misplaced romantic nostalgia in readers who know nothing about such a time and place. It has been compared to Goya and Keats and Irvine Welsh, was shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize and comes in a gorgeously designed cover. I even bought a copy for my father thinking it must be pretty good. But it was not for me.

After an indifferent beginning, I do think it got better. The intermingling stories begin to have a nesting doll-like structure. There were some nice passages and stories now and then, sometimes poetic and insightful. I found myself liking it a bit better and enjoying the writing a little more. The backstory of Mr Lee and his memories of China during the Communist Revolution were a particularly enjoyable part.

Usually at this stage in my reviews I discuss some of the themes I found in what I have read. In the case of Narcopolis, I have little to say. With the themes, like the plot, it is difficult to say what this book is about. There is some commentary, some insight, about comparative religion. There is some criticism of modern India – some of Narcopolis is set around the Emergency period after all. Early in the novel, mention is made of the failed experiment of Indian socialism but that description could apply to the novel as well.

It is probable that this book is about a lot of things, but they don’t bite the reader. I don’t think it is written to be especially impactful. It doesn’t make the reader pause and ponder. Rather, it feels like the book’s messages can be easily overlooked and, again with that nagging doubt, you wonder if you’ve wandered past anything significant.

Narcopolis begins by saying that Bombay is the hero/heroine of the story. In a strange way, I do think that by the end of Narcopolis, Bombay had come to take on an identity like a character in the novel. In this sense to novel achieves something.

I was sent back to India and I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay,

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