Penguin, 2012 (USA)
“This is the story the pipe told me. All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.”
My sincere thanks to TLC Blog Tours and to Penguin for sending me a copy of this book.
*******Halfway through the novel at a point where my brain demanded sleep, before putting the book down I wrote a brief note to myself on a piece of paper used as a bookmark: " Midway -- loving the book. Yes." And after reading the last word (which also happens to be the first word) of the story, my mind hadn't changed one bit. Although Narcopolis is a unique novel in its own right, it definitely belongs with the wave of incredible fiction that has recently been coming from India and other areas of South Asia. It is Jeet Thayil's first novel, filled with passion and poetic prose; it's a very good, one-of-a-kind read that captured me right away.
Much like the smoke that pervades Rashid's Bombay opium den on Shuklaji Street, Narcopolis has a somewhat swirly, surreal lingering effect, one that begins with its one-sentence prologue carried out over several pages, continues as it moves through the lives of the people who can be found on the street, and doesn't end even long past the time the last page has been turned. In this book, "the hero or heroin of the story" is the intoxicating city of Bombay, which over a span of about thirty years has had its share of upheavals felt by all who live there. In this novel, the people on the margins -- the whores, the addicts, the drug dealers, and other people who frequent the city's underbelly, the slums with "roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and the deranged..." are at the heart of this story, in which the author offers these people a chance to say things which might otherwise not be heard. Indeed, the novel is very much character driven, and the stories of Bombay over the last three decades and those of people filling her streets are relayed through the very odd set of people who inhabit the book. Their combined lives serve as a map through recent history, and through them the author introduces his readers to different facets of life on Shuklaji Street: drug addiction, poverty, increasing violence, corruption, the ebb and flow of life in Bombay's back alleys, and to a way of a life in which "a man could smoke a pipe or two a day and live a long and productive life" which ultimately vanishes in the face of newer, more lethal forms of escape.
As noted in the prologue, a single, sentence spanning just about six pages, there are two " I machines" telling the story:
"maybe the O is the I and I is unreliable, my memory like blotting paper, my full-of-holes, porous, shreddable non-memory, remembering details from thirty years ago but this morning a blank, and if memory = pain = being human, I'm not human, I'm a pipe of O telling this story over the course of a single night, and all I'm doing, the other I that is, I'm writing it down straight from the pipe's mouth..."
The novel is broken into four parts, the first part narrated for a while by the very human narrator, Dom Ullis, whose firsthand narration doesn't pick up again until much later, leaving the "pipe's mouth" to get on with the story. Ullis leaves Bombay for some time, returning in 2004, when the city he knew as a younger man has undergone a great deal of change. At the heart of the novel is Rashid's opium den on Shuklaji Street, an area known for its red-light district, a slum with a “fever grid of rooms, boom-boom rooms, family rooms, god rooms, secret rooms that contracted in the daytime and expanded at night." Rashid's is a popular place for opium smoking, "the best on the street," visited by tourists who stretch out on the cushions and fill their pipes with the freshly-cooked opium, or sit around, drink tea and take photos. Then there are Rashid's regulars who go there to leave life behind for a while in a place where "we are all smokers here," despite their differences outside the hazy opium shop.
This strange assortment of people whose stories comprise this novel include Ramesh, called Rumi, a Brahmin business man who hates everyone and wears cowboy boots; Rumi has a penchant not only for opium and later garad heroin, but also for violence, including regularly beating his wife. Then there's Rashid himself, who became a hippie, got into drugs, and opened his own shop in the late 1970s after watching a movie called "Hare Krishna, Hare Ram." Helping Rashid in his chandu khana is Dimple, a prostitute who was given away by her mother at a young age, castrated and given opium to help deal with the pain, and who serves clients at the local brothel specializing in eunuchs. She brings Rashid opium pipes from her surrogate father Mr. Lee, whom she first met as a child. Lee had left China during the Cultural Revolution, then died in Bombay where he had settled because of the sea. [As a brief aside, Lee's story is one of the best parts of this novel -- it is set in China during Mao's Cultural Revolution. His story also closes a circle: his revered opium pipes come back to India, where the opium flow to China began with the British East India Company.] Lee teaches Dimple how to use the pipes properly, tells her stories, and after he dies, the pipes are part of her inheritance. They also become part of a deal -- Dimple wants to eventually leave the brothel and offers the pipes in trade for staying with Rashid. Dimple also wants to figure out and become who she really is; along the way she dons the burkha, is saved from a mob by being a Christian, obtains different first names, and it is she who drives a great deal of this narrative. Dimple is trying to put the past aside in order to find a measure of peace and beauty in the world for her future. Other people found in the area include Bengali, who deals with Rashid's money and keeps his ear to the streets, the gangster street boss Lala, and many other colorful people the author has created.
Thirty years pass quickly in this novel as it follows this generation of Rashid's customers and others through their less than happy lives. Bombay is rocked with floods, riots, corruption, etc; it also experiences the switch in preference from opium to garad heroin, "the unrefined shit they throw away when they make good quality maal for junkies in rich countries." Garad comes from Pakistan; in Urdu its name means waste. Rashid refuses to sell it, but that doesn't prevent its spread among his customers. With the introduction of "Chemical," where strychnine is added to the heroin to "give it a kick," it becomes more lethal, but is more readily available than food, because the sales of heroin are "protected" by politicians and crooks. As one character notes, "today the street belongs to whoever takes it. Today it's ours, tomorrow someone else will take our place."
Bombay's changes continue over the years, and when Ullis returns to his homeland, he finds that parts of the Shuklaji street neighborhood have received a face lift and have become more modern, trying to keep up with twenty-first century trends. Everything is shiny and new, with splashes of color everywhere. Rashid's son Jamal is now in charge of the family business, which has extended itself to making deals with the Russians. He and his wife Farheen go out clubbing in crowded spots bursting with the beat, where she drops the burkha in favor of more trendy clothes. But despite the glitz and the glamour of this new, modern life, some things remain the same: the demand for escape in the city is still high, as are the suppliers' twin drives for money and power. "Dance or we die," Farheen notes to Jamal, whose deals involve newer drugs of choice, including cocaine and ecstasy.
I realize I've barely skimmed the surface here, but it's because this book is very multi-faceted, with so much to capture one's attention and little time and space here to go through it all. There are exiles and eunuchs, poets and painters, ghosts and spirits, and dreams that leak from one person to another -- only a few examples of what you'll find in this incredible book. Narcopolis is a very human story, and although there's a bit of a surrealistic quality surrounding the characters' lives and experiences, it is grounded in the truth of Thayil's own experiences as a drug addict who left Bombay for a while, came to the US, and returned later to his homeland.
Toward page 55 of this novel, I wrote in my notebook that "it's hard to tell the drug-induced dreams and hallucinations from the reality," and I think that's not an unfair description of the way the author writes. His background as a poet is quite obvious in the way he writes his prose. Dreams and hallucinations meld into reality and it's often difficult to separate them, Shuklaji street comes alive with even the smallest of details, and while you may feel little but disdain for many of the characters, some of them, like Dimple, become people with whom you can't help but sympathize. There is a great deal of irony scattered throughout, and even a few moments of humor. Thayil also blends different types of texts (magazine articles, books, an imaginary book set in the future also written with opium pipe in hand, movies, lectures, etc.) into his own narrative, creating a multi-layered effect that heightens the reading experience to the point where I never would have guessed that the book is his first novel. I'm not an English major nor am I good enough at more in-depth liteary analysis to provide one here, and some of the symbolism more than likely escaped me. I'll leave that side of things to others far more qualified. However, as a reader who enjoys international fiction, constantly on the lookout for something fresh and different, this novel blew me away. I've never read anything like it, and I probably never will again. It's unique, a one of a kind book filled with passion; it's gritty and tough, real and surreal all at the same time.
There are a few things about this novel that may concern potential readers: summarized briefly, the novel sort of rambles so if you're into linear, clear-cut plot development and a story that moves quickly from point a to point b, has a climax and then ends on a high note, well, this book might not be for you. Also, throughout the novel there is a great deal of sex, graphic language, graphic violence and a rape scene here and there, not to mention the drug use. While these are all things that might actually happen given the environment, some people may be not quite ready to deal with the author's descriptions or subject matter. Frankly, Narcopolis is probably not going to be everyone's cup of tea; if, however, you can get past the usual and are attracted to something very different, then you might want to give it a try.
Although I was going to read this book on my own anyway, I jumped at the opportunity to read it as part of a series of TLC blog tours. The remaining stops for this book are listed here if you're interested.