Narcopolis is the debut novel by Jeet Thayil that got shorlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. As the name suggests, the story is about Narcotics, mostly about opium and heroin addiction in early Bombay, around 1970-80s. The story most suitably narrated by Jeet Thayil, who has been an opium addict for over 20 years and stopped now due to health issues.
Around two decades ago when the Ullis (the narrator) first comes to Bombay, to Shuklaji street in search of chandu-khana (opium house), he meets the lead character of the story, a eunuch named Dimple and also other addicts. Dimple hails from northeastern India, abandoned by her family at a very young age enters into prostitution. While she is working for Tai with other prostitutes, Dimple starts working part-time at Rashid’s chandu-khana, which is claimed to be one of the best in city. While making pipes, smoking and serving the customers Dimple becomes a regular at the khana and eventually quits Tai and joins Rashid fulltime. She also starts living together with Rashid, almost like a wife and a business partner for him. Rashid names Dimple as Zeenat, and keeps their relationship hidden from the society. Rumi is another regular at Rashid’s, who discusses his personal issues with Dimple. At some point, the heroin takes over the business and opium is no longer available. Rashid initially shows some resistance to sell heroin, but in the due course he is left with no choice than to sell heroin.
Dimple lives a lonely life. Lee, the only guy whom she loves and takes care of, more like an adopted-father to her, passes away. Her life becomes even lonelier, her contacts being limited. She graduates from opium to heroin, and loses everything. When she loses her looks, job and broken down, Ullis takes her to a rehab.
The novel is more of documentation than a story. It captures the reality in one of the most unnoticed opiated corners of Bombay.
The narration is a little complex, especially at the initial few pages of the book. There is a test for our endurance in the prologue, which apparently is a single line, written over six and a half pages!
At many places the author has recorded his love for these drugs, especially opium when he describes the nasha in very beautiful sentences. He says, “Opium was all etiquette, a sense rhythm that centered on the mouth and the you held the pipe in relation to your body, a lunar ebb and pull of smoke that filled first the lungs and then the veins..”
In the novel, the author also marks the change in drug-era from opium to heroin and that he considers opium a better drug. “A chanduli can smoke for years and be healthy; garadulis are impatient, they want to die quickly”. At one point, the author even tries to justify addiction. “Drugs are a bad habit, so why do it?” Reply “Because, it isn’t the heroin that we are addicted to, it’s the drama of life, the chaos of it, that’s the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of limited options we are offered. Why would we choose anything else?” This looks like more of an excuse to use drugs, but the bitter truth is more and more have started taking this excuse. Whose life doesn’t have problems? If heroin is the answer then the entire world has to be intoxicated.
While discussing about the nasha from drugs, the author also deals with the after effects that it brings upon one’s character and physic. The life and ending of the main characters Lee, Dimple, Rumi and Rashid are all a good lesson. The rehabilitation and reincarnation (post rehab phase) are also handled with clear narration covering every detail. The book shows, how the drug scars and cripples a person’s life. Also, the author has managed to capture how the drug dealers exploit the addicts for their own profit, Jamal who doesn’t take drug himself, sells to a selected class of people, carefully leaving out his clan.
In the interview, the author is asked if this book would drive people into drugs, the author replies, if a book can drive you into addiction, then anything can drive you. But as a reader, I felt this book not all drug provoking and if at all, it only induces a more repulsive reaction in you. And for audience, this quote suits on how to get over a bad experience and continue life, “You’ve got to face facts and the fact is life is a joke, a fucking bad joke or, no, a bad fucking joke. There’s no point taking it seriously because whatever happens, and I mean whatever the fuck, the punch line is the same: you go out horizontally. You see the point? No fucking point.”
In contrast to most of the glamorized drug stories we usually come across in movies (esp Dum Maro Dum, which has also been quoted in this book), the author strips glamour and exposes the reality. One has to get past a labyrinth of swear words and disgusting encounters, before being exposed to the naked truth. Overall this novel is good read and opens door to new arena, which has by far been hidden to most of our eyes. Most suited for readers who are looking for a very different subject and raw truth.
The Youtube link to author’s interview:
Disclaimer: All the points discussed in this post are only my views on the book Narcopolis, it doesn’t encourage drug usage in any form. Don’t Huff, Don’t Puff. Keep away from that stuff!