Jeet Thayil (2012) Narcopolis Penguin Press, New York; 304 pp.; ISBN 978-1-59420330-5
Dom records his recollections and dreams as he drifts on a cloud of opium each night, back in the city of Bombay (he eschews the modern name Mumbai) which is home but increasingly unfamiliar to him. His story is told in four parts, roughly in time sequence, but in the narcotic haze time often folds in on itself, and people – the dead ones and the living – constantly intermingle.
He introduces us to the city and some of the characters in his life. He had been living in New York but after being arrested for buying drugs was sent back to India. In Bombay he becomes a regular at Rashid’s, located in a narrow street that houses brothels and opium dens. He meets Dimple, a transsexual prostitute who gradually works herself out of the brothel where she was sold as a young child and into Rashid’s opium den. She has a way with customers and Rashid is fond of her – to the dismay of his two wives.
A local artist, Newton Xavier, has been successful as an enfant terrible in England and returns to the city for a tour. Dom attends his lecture. Xavier is old and lonely, perpetually drunk or drugged off his face, and his view of the city is scornful. Dom takes him to Rashid’s where the two of them smoke a pipe and Xavier has sex with Dimple. She sees he is full of hatred and anger and we wonder why he is here at all. What happened to that glittering career?
The second section changes register and focuses on Mr Lee, a Chinese refugee who was born in Canton and grew up under Communism. His father wrote satirical novels and was eventually hounded by the Party, while his mother was a fervent devotee of the revolution. Later in life Mr Lee is an army officer but as the Cultural Revolution takes hold and the Red Guards turn on the old guard, he flees across Burma and into India. Bombay is the only place he can find solace – on the waterfront, in opium, and with Dimple. He is much older than her and plays a fatherly role. As he nears death he asks Dimple to make a promise about his mortal remains, something that will haunt her to the very end.
In the third part we return to the street where Rashid’s is located, but see that society is rapidly changing. Opium is old hat and people are increasingly shifting to heroin, kindly trafficked from Pakistan despite that country’s ostensible antagonism towards India (elites do it differently). Dimple switches to heroin but knows it is not doing her good. There are communal riots and often drugs are easier to get than basic necessities. At one point Dimple rescues Rashid’s young son Jamal from an angry Hindu mob – something for which Jamal will always be grateful. A new drug called Chemical hits the streets, the kick courtesy of a dose of strychnine. Dimple follows the fashion but you can sense her life is ebbing away. Dom flees the city, having the luxury of money and a good education, but the others do not have a choice.
In the final act, Dom returns several years later. The old street has been gentrified with shops, offices and fast food outlets. Rashid’s son Jamal runs an office where his father’s business used to be and Dom visits the old man upstairs. Dimple is dead, as are others from Dom’s earlier period. Rashid is now a pious, sad man who spends his days in a chair, staring from the window and mouthing silent words to Dimple’s ghostly presence.
The old brothel keepers and drug sellers in the street were all Muslim but were conscious that they had strayed from their faith. Jamal is a new breed. Clean cut and well dressed, he likes to vaunt his piety and orthodoxy. He is also dealing drugs, but justifies it on the basis that he is only selling to non-Muslims so is not straying in the way his father’s generation did.
Through this dense urban saga, the city of Bombay pulsates relentlessly – a ‘large accumulation of small defects’ as one character describes it. The world that Dom observes is that of the poor and dispossessed. All the main characters are bereft of love and have experienced deep loss, though the details of Dom’s own history remain obscure. Those who give themselves over to drugs are lonely and have few options in life. When Dimple tries rehab, she tells her counsellor that she enjoys drug taking: it gives her life routine and is an antidote to loneliness. Like nothing else in her life, it makes her feel safe. All around her the world churns: the city and its people are mercenary, cruel, squalid and stink to high heaven. It pulverises all those who cannot rise above it.
Opium-drenched visions are usually thought of as cool and detached, the pale blue smoke colouring what you see, but here the descriptions of life in Bombay are raunchy and ripe, physical and claustrophobic, full of vivid colours and sensations. Life seethes on the page and you are carried along, unable to escape and often nauseated by the threatening grip of the city on your throat, your brain and your groin. There are occasional glimpses of escape – lantern-lit ships on a watery horizon, the ghost of an ancient Chinese mariner come to offer a way out – but in the end all dissolve before your eyes.
Jeet Thayil’s debut novel is not for those timid about life in all its earthiness, but it is a wonderfully crafted journey into the maze of a dangerously beguiling city.