A compelling tale of Mumbai’s hazy world of opium addiction.
Narcotic drugs have inspired much storytelling and literary dreaming, if rather less actual writing. Of those few novels that slide out of the smoke on to paper, we assume addiction is a requisite for authenticity and yet an enormous hindrance to productivity. After all, it is hardly playing by the rules of decadence and dereliction to find the willpower and tenacity to finish a manuscript. But a tiny number do convince the public that theirs is a genuine account of an addiction whose clutches the writer escaped for long enough to scribble down a compelling narrative: think William Burroughs’s Junky, or Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Does Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, a tale of opium dens and heroin addiction in Mumbai, join that select club? It is not an easy task. And there’s another challenge: many books by foreign-educated Indians read as though they were written in a New York penthouse suite, the author having spent a couple of weeks researching a multi-generational, sprawling saga of Mumbai lowlife by chatting to the house servants of their relatives on the phone.
The story opens in Rashid’s opium house on Shuklaji Street sometime in the 1970s. We meet the owner himself, his regular clients and Dimple, the eunuch, who prepares his pipes. Very gently, we are drawn in to their languorous world. Thayil is an accomplished poet and that sensibility serves him well. We slide in and out of characters’ lives, emerging occasionally inside a vivid drug-induced recollection: like that of Mr Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and gives us as sharp a portrait of that country in the late 1940s as one could wish for.
We move onward with the years. Hippies arrive and begin to appreciate the quality of Rashid’s opium, the attention to detail in pipe preparation, the warm cocooning charm of it all. This is an India that itself was dreaming, wrapped up in Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and simplicity, ignoring the tsunami of change that would not strike until the 1991 economic liberalisation. I was in Mumbai in those days, on my first trip to India, sleeping in shoddy dives and living on cheap street food. He pins down that world perfectly; he even pins down us shabby western travellers with a few painfully precise words: "interloper[s] from the future come to gawk at the poor and unfortunate who lived in a time before antibiotics and television and aeroplanes".
For Rashid and Dimple that change arrives in the form of heroin, a drug that seems to herald a new world order, one more savage and hopeless than anything that went before. All the regulars switch. As the city disintegrates into communal riots, murder and mayhem, their own lives are in freefall too, and the story of that fall becomes an epic tragedy written with grace, passion and empathy. Thayil unpicks the complexities, contradictions and hypocrisies of Indian life with surgical elegance: the good Muslim selling heroin while complaining about brazen women, the queenly beggarwoman who makes the street her living room, and the Hindu praying in church, an action that saves her from the mob but not her fate.
There is a subplot about a murderer that doesn’t add much to the story, and a dud note is struck when Dimple starts to opine on Baudelaire and Cocteau. However, I wished that this book, like some long and delicious opium-induced daydream, would go on and on. The end, sadly, does eventually come. India has been reincarnating behind the blue smoke of the last pipes. We catch its reflection in the gleam of the heroin user’s silver foil and then there it is: the new country, standing hard and metallic and just as crazily conflicted and mired in melancholy as the last version of itself. In a shiny nightclub full of plastic and aluminium, Rashid’s son stares at the scantily clad women. He sells cocaine. He dances. He is a good Muslim in his own eyes. He might consider becoming a suicide bomber when the time is right.
Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey. Thayil is quoted as saying that he lost almost 20 years of his life to addiction, but on this showing the experience did not go to waste. We can celebrate that he emerged intact and gave us this book.
• Kevin Rushby’s Paradise: A History of the Idea that Rules the World is published by Robinson.