Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Faber and Faber: paperback published 2012: 292 pages
Wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my…
Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay. In Rashid’s opium room the air is thick with voices and ghosts: Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. A young woman holds a long-stemmed pipe over a flame, her hair falling across her eyes. Men sprawl and mutter in the gloom. Here, they say you introduce only your worst enemy to opium. There is an underworld whisper of a new terror: the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, whose victims are the nameless, invisible poor. In the broken city, there are too many to count. Stretching across three decades, with an interlude in Mao’s China, it portrays a city in collision with itself. With a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, it is a journey into a sprawling underworld written in electric and utterly original prose.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, Narcopolis is the story of addiction and opium in 1970s Bombay. Told from a variety of viewpoints, but ultimately following the one incredibly unreliable narrator, this is a poetic, heady mix of gritty realism and soporific monologues.
It took me some time to read this book because, despite being a relatively thin book, and having relatively simple (if a bit floral) prose, I just found it really hard going. The first seven pages are just one sentence (I’m really not kidding) as our narrator starts his story by taking a big hit of opium.
The prose itself flits from character to character, giving them a brief moment to tell their story, to eulogize about their addiction and to suffer from their romanticism. But the backdrop – the slums of 1970s Bombay, filled with “pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs” – is dark and terrifying and becomes a character in itself. The city pulses beneath the surface – it breathes its hot, polluted air from the pages and beckons with a filthy finger for you to enter its depths.
There is a greater story at work here, though. You feel the moral, religious and cultural prejudices bleeding through – with no judgement, but simply with big question marks hanging over them as they question their own existence and validity. The narrator doesn’t feel like a person at all, but rather it feels like opium itself – freeing these characters to act and question and react – to behave in one way and experience addiction in another.
It’s a hard book to read – not just because of the grim nature of the subject, but because these characters have a habit of blending in to one another as you go – as if you’re getting high as well and the edges of reality are blurring. The characters themselves are fantastically drawn; 3D creatures that are familiar and yet foreign, and all the while doused with a melancholia that suffuses the book with a nostalgia for the darker ages.
The final few pages of the book are particularly melancholic – our narrator returns to a Bombay that is virtually unrecognisable from the drug dens of his memory. The characters have gone – ghosts that look over his shoulder – and those that remain are smaller than before, and weaker. You finally understand why the addicts romanticise their addiction, and why they fade into it without a backward glance.
This is a book that will haunt you, too. These characters – so far apart from each other – who aren’t always nice, who are scared and misled and misunderstood, become comforting to you, and you want to stay with them, even when they have gone from the pages and you have closed the book.
Next book: I managed to win this one on Twitter! Next up is Stoner by John Williams…