by Jeet Thayil
Faber & Faber
Narcopolis is a captivating, intriguing novel that haunts the imagination for weeks after the last page is turned. Set in the labyrinthine alleyways of 1970s Bombay, the story is peopled with a motley crew of characters from the fringe of society - beggars and pimps, drug pushers and poets, swindlers and gangsters.
At the epicentre of the novel is an opium den on Shuklaji Street in Old Bombay, which is run by the married, middle-aged Muslim, Rashid, and his employee and eventual lover, the drug-addled, cross-dressing eunuch ex-prostitute, Dimple. In this dark and hazy room, the characters replay and re-imagine their wayward lives through the much softer and more forgiving screen of opium smoke.
The mysterious main character, whose narrative voice opens and closes the book, is a visitor to the opium den who befriends Dimple and Rashid, and tells their story in fittingly hallucinatory prose. It is not until the final chapters that readers get a better sense of who the main character is - a foreigner who flees Bombay to start a new life, only to return years later to find everything is changed.
Narcopolis is as much about Bombay as it is about the characters. If a city can be conceptualised through narcotics, this new, contemporary Bombay has replaced the dreamy apathy and religious, social and psychological tolerance of the opium den with the edgy buzz and aggressive, hypocritical arrogance of cocaine.
'Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroine of this story ...' says the prologue. But Bombay/Mumbai is not a heroine who stands for a cause and wins - she wins because she adapts and survives.
And it is the narrator's task, in this case an opium-addicted outsider, to record what has been pushed aside by so-called progress - the stories of the damaged and the misused. As the final lines say: 'This is the story the pipe told me. All I did is write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.'
The novel does, however, expand beyond Bombay, going as far as to include China, but it is here that the writing goes slightly off course. The novel is divided into four books, and the story of Mr Lee - who fled from Mao Zedong's China as a young man and has lived almost incognito in Bombay ever since - takes up one of these. While the descriptions of how Dimple cares for Lee when he is dying are poignant, the chapters that look back into Lee's past in China are tinged with stereotype. Readers may find themselves wishing they were back on the streets of Bombay, a world much more confidently depicted in the novel.
Overall, however, Narcopolis is a well-written imagining that is one moment graphic and disturbing, the next lyrical and restrained. The first novel by Indian poet and musician Jeet Thayil, himself a former alcoholic and drug addict, it is an unusual and compelling work from a talented new writer, and one unlike any other coming out of India today.