Jeet Thayil. Narcopolis. London; Faber & Faber, 2012. 292 pp.
Jeet Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis is the book that coulda-shoulda won the Man Booker Prize for 2012. Instead, the prize, announced last week, went to Hilary Mantel’s book on Oliver Cromwell, Bring up the Bodies.
Thayil, the longest shot, would have made for a more sensational, media-grabbing winner than the widely admired, almost- mediumistic novel by Mantel. The author is a cosmopolitan Indian who “lost twenty years of [his] life to heroin” and went on to write this startling book. Or, as he put it in an interview, it wrote itself. A win by Thayil would have given hope to starving writers (and addicts) around the globe. Tant pis.
When a writer says their book “wrote itself,” chances are it’s great. Thayil’s research, or rather experience, trumps anything Hilary Mantel dug out of the archives of England’s Henry VIII.
The novel, whose title is a play on the word “necropolis,” is history lived, then recounted firsthand. You can taste and smell it. Details quickly dissolve like a snowflake or a tab of acid on your tongue. Narcopolis is no period piece and it’s no genre book either. It’s that special thing: a one-off. Its subject—addiction—may be more relevant than the subject of Oliver Cromwell. We live in an era of addiction awareness and prescription-drug abuse—most of it opioid, incidentally.
Far from the Court of King Henry in the 1650s, Thayil’s novel revolves around the lowest segment of India’s urban society: the Bombay underworld.
In the old world, they used to do things slowly and beautifully. Today, even pleasure is all about convenience and immediacy. And so the principal protagonist in Narcopolis is not a person but a chemical. Superficially, it’s that most refined of drugs: opium. Bombay was the number-one transshipment hub in the 19th century for Chinese opium headed for the West courtesy of the British East Indian Company. (Cromwell would have been pleased.) Fortunes were made from the trade, and opium dens were still notorious in Bombay in the ’70s and ’80s.
On one level, we follow a trio of 500-year-old opium pipes as they pass from owner to owner. The pipes are bequeathed by an exiled, dying Chinaman to a surrogate daughter named “Dimple,” a prostitute and eunuch who was castrated in youth and for whom misfortune is a way of life. (“Her breasts were fuller and the space between her legs had long ago healed into a scar.”) We watch as these long, intricately carved pipes are prepared with exquisite care and hurry-free timing, the lack of haste allowing the weird and wonderful characters of the semi-ghetto of Shuklaji Street to take their time, allowing them to relax and tell Dimple their life stories while she prepares their next pipe. (The etiquette meant you never prepared your own pipe; it must be prepared and given, or served, to you by another.)
Exhaling their smoke, the customers converse, feeling the pain in their body vanish; then all the pain there is in the world, in the collective unconscious, feeling all of it vanish by degrees, bit by bit. Like the hour and second hands of a perpetual clock, the opium works simultaneously slow and fast. In fact, it voids the difference between fast and slow. We human beings seem to cherish this state. We want to freeze time, to be in the moment, to hold the moment. Opium will put you right into the moment, right now.
The owner of the opium den, a gangster named Rashid, has a brother, Khalid, who encourages him mid-novel to get into the burgeoning heroin business. A government-protected smuggling route has opened between Pakistan and Bombay. They’ll make a killing. But the elder and wiser businessman, Rashid—almost the only character to survive to old age in this tale—turns up his nose at this powder heroin, preferring the opium of tradition. For him it’s equivalent to the arrival of crack cocaine in the 80s or crystal meth today. It’s ghetto shit. Not for his discerning customers. Not on his street. Not on Shuklaki, which is so legendary and classy, the prostitutes outside are so cheap that they’re “almost free.” (Please, implores a taxi driver who doesn’t like driving all the way down the street; please don’t go to the girls in the cages. They’re dirty.)
The younger brother gives in to the logic of commerce and soon Rashid’s opium house is shut down by government agents whose bribes have multiplied overnight by a factor of ten, abetting the new market for powder heroin. But the evolution of the drug doesn’t stop there. Like a character, it progresses and alters. By the end of the book, this refined powder gives way to another new, yet more noxious drug. This life-choking drug goes by the street name “Chemical.” It’s a poor cousin to pure heroin, torqued with strychnine (rat poison) to give the user a fast and evil kick that he won’t forget.
It’s business as usual for criminal overlords. They might have laughed too soon. The drug is dangerous, yet come the book’s denouement, even the opium-den owners have put away their antique Chinese pipes and become hooked on the speed and efficacy, the wide availability and stopping power, of Chemical. Even the gangster bosses, connoisseurs who should know better, give in to the inexorable tide.
Business wins. And in so doing a shorthand economic history of Bombay, and of commerce in general, is told us, along with so much magic and suffering in this mesmerizing novel.
“He was on first-name terms with Jesus, Nehru and Gandhi, Cassius Clay, Winston Churchill, Gina Lollobrigida and Jean-Paul Sartre,” Rashid tells us about an opinionated ex-government clerk named Bengali who is a regular at Rashid’s. They are in the middle of an opium conversation shared courteously with addicts’ mutual regard for each other’s opinions, if no one else’s.
When you’re snug in Rashid’s opium den, deep in the timeless, horizontal state belonging to the O smoker…only then does the logic of syzygy, or of interstellar symmetry—or whatever the hell it is this Bengali is on about—only then can it carry the weight it has acquired in these interlocutors’ minds. The mystery of the universe is parsed by a cosmic speculator, an ex-clerk of all things, a man who happens to be in Bombay in 1970-something and knows a little about outer space.
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