Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, the deftly and aptly titled Narcopolis is—like the polis in which it takes place—part cacophony, part symphony: a whirlwind of drugs, sex, violence, loves, lives, deaths, and more than anything, stories. “Bombay,” the book begins, “which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story.” As the title suggests, the book is about drugs and about place. But it’s about much more than that as well.
Born, like our narrator, in Kerala to a Christian family, Thayil split his time growing up between Hong Kong, Bombay, and New York City. He continued this pattern as an adult: spending twelve years working as a journalist in Hong Kong, another ten or so years in Bombay, and in 1998 returning to New York to earn his MFA. In 2004, he moved back to India and began writing Narcopolis. Though it’s his first novel, Thayil is no stranger to the written word (and it shows). He’s published and edited several volumes of poetry, and, not to stop there, is also a songwriter and musician.
Thayil has said that Narcopolis is not your typical Bombay book: “It did not feature the great figures of Independence or Colonial history, or even the bit players.” It’s a special tale—one he tells with intimacy and familiarity. Thayil affirms that he knew well the world of opium dens, he saw garad heroin destroy that culture and many people’s lives, and he struggled to overcome his own addiction for twenty years, finally finding some success in 2002. “This is my secret history,” he reveals.
The history we’re told in Narcopolis is easily his as much as it is our narrator, Dom Ullis’s. And the history extends far beyond Dom as well. Yes, Narcopolis is about a specific India in a specific time period. We hear references to historically significant events throughout: the pathaar maar killings, when a “stone killer” preyed on Bombay’s most destitute, bashing their heads in with a rock while they slept. (The killings remain unsolved in reality, but Narcopolis does offer a potential answer to the mystery, a stone killer who perhaps saw himself as a force of benevolent violence, the only solution to a broken world.) And the destructive chaos of the Bombay riots in the early 90s accompanies the characters’ own descent into ruin. But the book is also a timeless and universal story.
Dom’s name is rarely said, indeed he is absent for much of the book, and what we know about his personal history doesn’t extend far beyond snippets. What we do know rings similar to Thayil’s story. Dom is from Kerala, has spent time in New York, works with the written word (in this case in an editorial capacity as a proofreader for, conveniently, a pharmaceutical company), and comes and goes from Bombay—and, one guesses, his drug habit.
That our narrator is atypical and largely undefined says a lot about the way the book works. As it turns out, narrator Dom is only one of our narrators, only the vessel, most of the time, for our other narrator, an omniscient voice spanning the length of history and breadth of the globe. To whom does this all-seeing eye belong? It’s actually all explained in the prologue, though one may need to spend a spell deciphering it, given that the prologue, though over six pages long, is one continuous sentence: clauses, details, explanations, voices strung together in a way that shows chronology and clear-cut narration are not the goal here. This rambling introduction provides us with a glimpse of what’s to come in terms of narrative structure, and in terms of the tumultuous, ever-changing but never-resting Bombay the book is set in. The prologue introduces us our unconventional narrators, and it tells us (ironically) quite straightforwardly not to expect linearity. Dom warns us that “the I you’re imagining at this moment . . . who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine . . . isn’t the I who’s telling this story.” He further clarifies: “That’s the I who’s being told,” which, though perhaps not immediately transparent, is actually the key to understanding the book’s somewhat unusual style of narration. It’s not tidy, but neither is what it’s about (addiction, Bombay).
The plot itself is not terribly complicated. The novel is broken up into four “books.” Book One, “The Story of O,” begins with Dom’s arrival in Bombay. It is the late 1970s, and he quickly weaves himself into the fabric of Bombay’s sordid underbelly, specifically, the opium dens. Here he meets Rashid, owner of a khana on Shuklaji Street where much of the novel takes place (and where Dom smokes his first pipe); Dimple, the beautiful hijra who works for Rashid preparing bowls of opium; “Bengali,” who manages Rashid’s money; Rumi, the unflinchingly confrontational businessman; and an assortment of other characters.
Dom has several run-ins with a poet, Newton Xavier Francis, before disappearing near the middle of Book One and not returning until well into the second half of Book Three. Our “I” narrator simply vanishes, and is replaced by a third-person omniscience that suddenly steps in to tell us the inner workings of other characters’ minds and their personal histories. This narration has the ring of the truth, or at least what the characters themselves see as the truth. How would Dom know all this? Is this even Dom’s perspective? Where is Dom anyway? Turns out (if you hadn’t keenly parsed the prologue, you’re given other chances to catch this) it’s the other “I,” the I who’s telling, that’s narrating now. It is through the mouth (in both senses) of an ancient opium pipe that we hear these stories.
The pipe takes us to Dimple’s perspective. We witness her encounters with Xavier (who feels to her like the devil but speaks to her of saints), and follow her into her dreams. The narration swoops back in time to when a much younger Dimple is experiencing body pain as a result of hormonal changes from being gelded at a young age. She visits a Chinese man called Mr. Lee, who provides her opium to ease her pain and winds up her surrogate father.
Book Two, “The Story of the Pipe,” centers on Mr. Lee: the life story he tells Dimple as he grows closer to death. We witness his childhood and youth, his falling in love, his time in the army, and his subsequent exile and flight to India and, eventually, Bombay, which he hates but stays in because he is drawn to the sea. When Lee dies, he leaves Dimple his family’s magnificent old opium pipes, which she barters for a position at Rashid’s khana, where she will make pyalis all day in exchange for opium of her own to smoke.
Book Three, “The Intoxicated,” chronicles the tumultuous crumble of the mostly mellow opium dens into the brutally effacing world of chemical heroin. Rashid’s khana is shut down, reopened, and shut down again. Dimple leaves the brothel she has worked at nearly her whole life to live at Rashid’s, on the half landing between the khana and the upstairs floor where his wives and children live. Dimple has been determined throughout to leave the brothel, to make her own future. Her move to Rashid’s could be a positive one but is derailed by the new drug of choice in town. Not to mention that she’s expected to act as Rashid’s sex partner whenever he’s in the mood.
The characters descend further and more inescapably into ruin as garad heroin becomes increasingly available and pervasive. By now, we’ve come to the early 90s and the horrific Bombay riots that leave the city burning and the population inflamed. Heroin is easier to get than fruit. Our “I” narrator, Dom, returns to us. He is making arrangements to leave Bombay. He, like everyone else we’ve been following, has developed a heroin habit since we last saw him ten or so years ago (though we wonder where, since he says he hasn’t seen Dimple in that long). Before leaving Bombay, he deposits Dimple in rehab: a last-ditch effort to save her. His “I” leaves us again for the rest of Book Three, and the rehab center, appropriately called “Safer,” which comes to house both Dimple and, later, Rumi, are the locus of the rest of the section.
Book Four, “Some Uses of Reincarnation,” returns narrator Dom to Bombay. It is 2004 (the year also of Thayil’s return). After running into an old acquaintance, Dom decides to visit Rashid’s. He arrives at Shuklaji Street to find the area disorientingly different. The former red light district has transformed into stores, businesses, and fast food restaurants, and Rashid’s khana is now an office, run by his son Jamal. Dom speaks with the aged Rashid to find out what happened to his friends. We catch a glimpse of the newer generation when we follow Jamal and his fiance, Farheen, to a club. Cocaine and ecstasy are the new flavor of the hour, and Jamal (a “businessman” even at the age of six) follows in his father’s footsteps, as a cocaine salesman. Shiny surfaces abound—in the club and, more and more, in the city—but what’s below them is doubtless no less raw, no less depraved. It will always go on; the story doesn’t end (“Dance or we die,” says Farheen to Jamal).
Dom goes through the belongings Dimple left at Rashid’s. Among them, he finds the opium pipe. The book ends in the same spot it started: Dom and the pipe and the account they’ve now made together, a metatextual call out signaling the circularity: “All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.”
As the ouroboric final line suggests, the way the story is told is as important as the story itself—indeed it is a key to understanding the story. Language is a clear focus throughout, and the book is filled with lines that beg to be read aloud: Xavier “outdid the Romantics’ antics,” is “permanently drunk on booze, broads and beauty,” and is “mad, bad, and slanderous to know.” The place Dimple develops her taste for opium is called by its patrons “Mistah Lee’s or Mister Ree’s.”
The significance of text extends beyond code switching and ear candy. There are clear similarities between the way the book is told and both Bombay itself and the drug state itself. The book is highly intertextual, containing references to invented texts and real-world ones, stories within stories from a broad mix of genres (magazine articles, poems, books, song lyrics, films), and repetitions of key phrases and narratives. Among this assortment of texts, layers of reality mingle and swirl so that it’s not always evident what is dream, what is nod; what is fact, what is fiction; what is past, present, future, or prophecy.
The intertextual elements of the narrative are so ubiquitous it feels we are reading or hearing a story within our story just as much as we’re reading “the” story itself. In the first thirty or so pages alone, we have extracts from Time magazine (“What a big name for a small book,” Dimple says), Free Press Journal, the Daily Mail, and several other papers talking about Newton Pinter Xavier, “a postmodern subversive who rejected the label ‘postmodern’” (could this be true of Thayil as well?); the enigmatic S. T. Pande, whose texts appear several times throughout the book; and a few poems by Xavier himself. One of these tells of a boy in a dystopian future who becomes separated from his family and homeland. As a teenager, he and his band of outsiders one day come to a spot he knows is the place he is from. He recognizes much of the city but can’t spot his own home. As he starts his trek toward the city, he gets it: He hasn’t spotted his house because it’s no longer there—it’s been transformed, now “a mansion with a pool and garden.” He turns back and decides not to visit after all:
“It wasn’t that I wanted to go home,
Who knew home? I only knew alone.
What I wanted was to be elsewhere,
Somewhere, anywhere but there.”
This story of exile, an apocalyptic future, a child running or being forced away from home and returning later, to see that it’s not the same and never can be is one we see again and again. Bombay (and drug addiction—the two are often synonymous, as when Dom says, “I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay”) is a place of exile for many of the characters, or a second home. It’s surely not a coincidence that St. Francis Xavier, the poet’s namesake, is the patron of navigators and aimless travelers.
It is through Mr. Lee, himself an exile, who “lost a war and a homeland at one stroke,” that we receive perhaps the most significant text within text. Lee’s father, we learn, wrote a book in 1957 that broke from his previous popular literature and whose content was incendiary enough to the Maoist government that the author was thrown in a labor camp, branded a revisionist, a forced to carry a sign reading, “I am a monster.” Lee finds the book, Prophecy (another fitting title), after his father’s death. As the contents are unveiled, a stir of recognition sparks, and grows the more we hear. Prophecy is “presented like a biography but there were things in it that no biographer could know, for instance the things that men and women were thinking at important moments in their lives” and “at the center of it all was a character who was neither man nor woman.” The book is also similar to the poem about the exiled boy: a Cherokee archaeologist in 2056 “fleeing a cataclysm in an
unnamed city, arrives in a landscape that’s somehow familiar to him. He recognizes it from the remembered stories of his tribe.” The story then moves on (back in time to the Ming Dynasty era) to tell of a ship in the fleet of Zheng He, and “the author” (Lee’s father) appears for the first time to tell us that he believes Zheng He, not Columbus, discovered America. The book’s third section, again, back in time, and again with a fluctuating narrative (between third person and the admiral’s head), tells of Zheng He’s upbringing (he was born Ma, a Muslim, then brought to Ming and castrated) and of the voyage the emperor sets to him, to sail to the end of the horizon—the end of the world, into the realm of the unknown. At its close, the book moves forward in time, two generations to Zheng He’s grandson, a boy called Soporo Onar (a keen reader will notice this name again later in Narcopolis). Soporo tries to find Zheng He’s final resting place, which is somewhere in India, somewhere on the west coast (Lee says this is perhaps why he came to Bombay). Soporo “builds a monument to him in the pages of a book”—yet another book, Soporo’s book, within Lee’s father’s book, within the story of Lee’s life, as told to Dimple, within the pipe’s narration, as told to narrator Dom, within the book Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
Mr. Lee’s story is the most consistently chronological narrative in Narcopolis—it tells his entire life start to finish, in one (fairly) continuous stream. Yet it comes in the middle of the book, is buried between layers of other characters’ stories (and contains a few Russian tea doll texts of its own), is related to us second hand (or third depending how you spin it), and is one of the only major stories that takes place outside of Bombay (other stories are hinted at, like the narrator’s time in New York City, for example, and Rumi’s story of chauffeuring the rich in LA). So why China? Simply put: the opium connection. Thayil has said that living in India and China gave him knowledge of the two historic “poles” of the opium trade. And this is where Narcopolis is anchored. After all, it’s Mr. Lee’s story, but it’s also the story of the pipe, our narrator, who originally belonged to the senior Mr. Lee—and was his constant companion during the writing of Prophecy. It seems Dom is not the only one writing down a book based on what the pipe has told him.
This jumble of genres and narratives is to some extent an essential ingredient in a postmodern narrative, but in some spots its haphazardness creates less a sense of pastiche than of choppiness. When, for instance, Rumi says, “Let me tell you about the singer,” and then launches into a first-person anecdote, one wonders if this tell-not-show announcement could have been more tempered, the story better integrated. Certainly someone with Thayil’s impressive command of prose is capable of a bit more finessing.
In any case, these references to other texts, other stories are scattered throughout the book, and often are multi-layered. Books appear within dreams. Mr. Lee is visited by visions of his father’s novel when he grows older and closer to death, and later, so is Dimple. Before he drops her at rehab, Dom takes Dimple to Chowpatty Beach and has a “moment of clairsentience” where he feels Dimple looking for the ghost ship on the horizon, the ghost ship Mr. Lee looked for, that his father wrote about, that Zheng He sailed on. Dimple later writes a story, that Dom finds, in which a boy has similar visions.
We have many different stories, many different storytellers, and many modes of seeing these stories. The layers to parse through are not just story layers, but also perspectives: is it a true story, a fable, a dream, a drug-induced vision, a memory? Near the beginning of Book One, the nod takes Dom and he dreams he is visited by the spirit of deceased Dimple. Though at first we may see it as “just a dream,” it becomes clearer as the book unfolds that these dream visitations may actually be from spirits, traversing time and space, to visit people who know them. Dimple tells Dom that her spirit is always there, just beyond a veil, behind a mirror’s reflection, or under the surface of water. Spirits hover nearby, she says, just waiting for someone to listen.
Dreams are threaded throughout, and often contain important messages—secrets or revelations of the future. Dreams are not even always contained within the head of the dreamer. Dimple’s dream of Mr. Lee leaks into Rashid while they are having sex, and Rashid sees a dream vision of his own future (which Dom later witnesses come to pass). These different states of reality bleed into and meld with one another. Dimple says of her memories of her mother that come to her when she’s detoxing (and which mix with Mr. Lee’s memories of his mother): “With the dreams came memories, or perhaps they weren’t memories at all but fantasies she imagined were memories.”
As dreams contain lessons, memories
contain pain. Dimple’s mother gave Dimple away at age seven or eight (Dimple doesn’t want to remember) to the tai at the brothel where Dimple is castrated, and works for many years of her life. Upon explaining what she can remember of her past to her new father, Mr. Lee, Dimple is told: “Forget is best.” She agrees, tired of the emotional burden: “Why remember and make yourself sad?” The slippery nature of recollection is evident in Mr Lee’s response. “Why remember when anyway you memory wrong, ALL WRONG.”
Stories mix and blend into each other, states of reality are loose and interwoven. Indeed, flux, and the mixing, shifting, changing, defying, reincorporating of norms, expectations, cultures, languages, codes, stories, reality, etc., is central to the book, which intriguingly often departs from norms yet conforms to them at the same time.
The book is and isn’t about India. It’s billed as not your typical Indian novel, as having more in common with drug and addiction literature: more Burroughs than Rushdie. Yet look at its themes—identity, language, code switching, religion, violence, change. How could it not be essentially Indian? The narrator himself is not the typical Indian, if there can be such a thing. There is his Christian upbringing in Kerala, his long periods of exile or absence, in New York and elsewhere. And of course, his name—Dom. “With a name like that you’re fucked,” Rumi observes. “All you have in common with these people is smoke.”
But Dom has much more than just smoke in common with the book’s other addicts (though that commonality may be what’s driven them to addiction). They are a hodgepodge of different backgrounds: Dimple, who looks like she could be Mr. Lee’s daughter but came of age in Bombay; Rumi, caste mark on his forehead, cowboy boots on his feet, equal opportunity hater of all other cultures; Rashid, a Muslim who loses his faith, replaces it with drugs, and eventually swaps them back again; Newton Pinter Xavier and his paintings: his gruesome altered Christs, which, according to the newsprint about him, “remain firmly outside the purview of the British isles, and . . . that of the Indian subcontinent.”
These types of contradictions, ironies, and unexpected mélanges are scattered everywhere throughout the book, as when Xavier can’t tell if the music he’s hearing is “jazz or Hindustani classical” or when he yells while he’s having sex with Dimple in a language no one can identify “Sa Crenaam” (perhaps actually Sacré Nom—as in sacré nom de Dieu, a fairly innocuous French curse with religious undertones, sometimes, it should be mentioned, said instead as “sacré nom d’une pipe”).
Tying together the reality shifts and the break from norms, the book’s magical realism also embraces yet breaks with the traditional. There are some “magical” elements—the dead speaking to the living, a talking pipe, a prophetic book called (what else?) Prophecy—but this “magic” is confined to the land of dreams and drugs. Rather than take away from their magic, this actually lends strength. We are not able to dismiss anything as simply not real, because it is real to the characters and perhaps even real within the book’s reality as well. What’s just a dream, an opium nod, a heroin vision could also be a glimpse behind that veil separating us from the realm of the magical. Surely it’s not a coincidence that so many of the dream apparitions directly speak of this very thing. That the magical stuff happens in the realm of dreams or the realm of the intoxicated means we have no way to dismiss it. Of course, it becomes easy to forget that the pipe’s all-knowing narration comes through Dom—who has himself spoken of the impossibility of reliability. Is the pipe really speaking to him, or does he just think so? Is Prophecy really prophetic, or is the whole thing, indeed the entire book, a story he has made up? The sense is that it’s genuine, as genuine as it can be anyway, but the very fact that we can’t be sure makes those magical moments all the more powerful.
If there is one character who embodies the heart and soul of the book, it is not Dom, but Dimple. Neither man nor woman, technically a man but referred to throughout with female pronouns, Dimple says of herself: “Some days I’m neither, or I’m nothing. On other days I feel I’m both.” The neither/either/both that defines Dimple’s gender applies to so much in the book and so much of what the book is doing. The idea of syzygy, which Bengali introduces, is especially salient here: it’s a concept that can refer to both “a conjunction or opposition” AND a “pair of connected or corresponding things.”
Vacillating between prescience and naivete, Dimple is driven to communicate; she’s a “story addict” obsessed with language, who will read anything she can, though while she’s still becoming literate, she doesn’t really get genre. (She thinks “Sex Detective” is a true-crime narration. “It’s not a book,” a humored Dom tells her. “And this is not a pipe.”)
Like Bombay’s, Dimple’s name does not remain fixed. She was originally (re)named after the beautiful Dimple Kapadia, of the film Bobby (the plot of which rings with familiar themes). She is (re)renamed, again after a film star— this time Zeenat Aman—by Rashid, who takes her to a movie (Hare Rama Hare Krishna), in which “Zeenie” plays a character who has renamed herself Janice and run away from home (sound familiar?). Again, we have this undercurrent of exile and separation. In fact, the word hijra is etymologically related to the Arabic hjr, which refers to leaving one’s tribe.
Rashid gives Dimple a new name and a new identity when he asks her to begin wearing a burka. For a while she enjoys slipping between her two identities. Dimple has always found some power in deciding what to wear—be it burka, sari, or “trousers because it allowed her . . . to act like a man when she wanted to.” She recognizes that “clothes are costumes, or disguises. The image has nothing to do with the truth. And what is truth? Whatever you want it to be. Men are women and women are men. Everybody is everything.”
Dimple moves between religions, genders, states of reality, time, clothes, names, roles. She dreams she is rich; she identifies with Jesus because he is poor. She learns to use new languages: teaching herself English, learning to swear in Cantonese from Mr. Lee.
Dimple also acknowledges—and has been unequivocally abused by—a gender disparity that places men squarely on top (literally and otherwise): “For conversation, better to be a woman, for everything else, for sex, better to be a man.” The misogyny on display in Narcopolis is enough to make any non-misogynist cringe, even though it’s clearly intended to be satirical or subversive in most cases. But there are no strong female characters, excepting Dimple, who though in many ways female, is biologically male and doesn’t see herself as solely a woman. The only other female characters we see are wives, girlfriends, prostitutes, many of whom are literally in cages, wives who are compared to whores, whores who are secretly wives, and a few poor souls taken out by the pathaar maar. Even the few women who assert some autonomy or sense of control (Mr. Lee’s love, or Jamal’s Fahreen) are defined by their relationships to the male characters—are in one way or another under the thumb of men.
That’s how it realistically was, and is, in a male dominated society like the one the novel depicts. It’s important to be accurate. But this is a novel, not a history book. There is room for other voices here. Fiction, as Thayil knows, is a powerful tool to give voice to the marginalized. To successfully subvert the male dominated paradigm present in the novel, the author could create a female character whose primary purpose wasn’t as a male’s sex object. Even if the bonds of patriarchy are inescapable to the characters, that shouldn’t stop a novelist from showing us a woman with dreams and talents and thoughts and stories—like men have. The women of Narcopolis may be silenced by their world, but must they also be silenced by the author—or, should we say, by the pipe? “If you are going to get upset, get upset with the character, not with me. I only wrote it,” said Jeet at a reading (of a linguistically brilliant but rather nasty speech made by Rumi), as though he too were told these stories by an all-seeing pipe. Maybe in part he was, but one wishes that if so, the pipe had humanized the female characters a bit more.
Perhaps the imbalance is meant to show the difficulty of connection. Dimple observes that men are only interested in reaching orgasm, and have more in common with males of other species than they do with women. There is no way to truly be joined: “Genuine union is impossible; all we can hope for is cohabitation.”
Dimple is not even entirely a woman, and still she is defined by men, a victim of their violence, forced into prostitution, name changed, named (twice!) after an object of beauty, at times required to wear a hijab. Narcopolis tells the stories of, as Thayil puts it, “the degraded, the crushed, whose voices were unheard or forgotten, but whose lives were as deserving of honor as anyone else’s.” Clearly, this describes Dimple to a tee.
The struggle or disparity between rich or poor is a key conflict throughout the book. Dimple is shocked when she goes to the doctor—who explains the origin of the pain that eventually leads her to Mr. Lee—amazed that he never even touches her, just speaks a few words, and she must pay him for that. Such a contrast from her own line of work.
“The rich crave meaning,” says Xavier, whereas the poor, like Dimple, are not amazed by anything except how money works the way it does. Yet as likeable as Dimple is, and as rough her situation, one is not manipulated (by Thayil) into feeling pity for her (this would be easy for a writer to do with characters like these, in a place like this, in a time like this). Indeed, many of the characters are quite unlikable—even unsettling—and the likable ones aren’t necessarily told in a way that’s meant to endear them to us. On one hand, this limits the book because it makes the reader less emotionally invested. On the other hand, a writer as skilled as Thayil could clearly have tugged at our heart strings if he wanted to. That’s not his goal here, and it is to his credit that he doesn’t go for the easy punches like many a Bombay/Mumbai narrative might (c.f., Slumdog Millionaire). “I tried to keep sentimentality out of it,” Thayil says. “If nostalgia is another word for regret, and if regret is for amateurs, as I’m beginning to think it is, then sentimentality should also be viewed with some suspicion.” The book is a touch less stirring because of this, but Thayil is nonetheless to be applauded.
Whether we’re sentimental about it or not, poverty is not the sole cause of addiction, or of the characters’ struggles. Why is someone like you an addict? Dimple wants to know of Dom. And he cannot figure out an answer to that question for many years, though it turns out in the end to be about the same things it is for every addict.
Rumi puts it bluntly: “You’ve got to face facts and the fact is life is a joke. . .There’s no point in taking it seriously because whatever happens . . . the punch line is the same: you go out horizontally. You see the point? No fucking point.” Xavier says an addict is like a saint: “His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, not to live.”
It is mortality that causes the suffering of chronology. Having a mortal self, whose mortality you happen to be aware of, is tricky business. How to deal with it? One way is to attempt to obliterate that self, and drugs, especially heroin, do so quite effectively. Heroin is so powerful, and so destructive, because it is a more efficacious obliterator of the self, and of time, notable for “the instantaneous effect of it, how it closed their eyes and shut them off from their own bodies and the world.” Heroin destroys chronology, “annihilates the idée of time as a logical or chronological imperative.”
As Dimple puts it, “The main thing nobody mentions is the comfort of it, how good it is to be a slave to something . . . the fact that it’s an antidote to loneliness, and the way it becomes your family, gives you mother love and protection and keeps you safe” (things Dimple never had). “It isn’t the drama of heroin that we’re addicted to, it’s the drama of the life, the chaos of it . . . the intoxicated life is the best of the limited options we’re offered.”
The characters are all trying to deal with this essential truth. Religion. Stories. Violence. Sex. Art. Drugs. Addiction: all are ways of trying to cope with the perils of personhood. When Narrator Dom comes back to us in Book Three saying that he’ll be leaving Bombay and “the habit,” we catch a glimpse of why: “The city was revealed as the true image of my canceled self: an object of dereliction . . . closed . . . to the world.” Dom tries and at first fails to leave. “I lost track of time, I could have been anyone, I lost myself, which is the reason people like me get into drugs in the first place.”
The man in charge of the Safer rehab center, a weighty character though he is with us but briefly, gives a powerhouse speech to the residents. He talks about choice, about freedom, about how taking heroin is the ultimate illustration of free will. Everyone knows how dangerous it is, what could happen from taking it, but some choose to take it anyway. The paradox of addiction then, is that addicts are perhaps the freest of all.
It may seem rambling to a reader whose primary pleasure is plot development, but Narcopolis’s narrative style is perhaps the only way to come close to depicting the inexpressible nature of addiction, the ineffable nature of a place like Bombay. In that way, the book’s postmodernism, which some readers or critics might wrinkle their noses at, is actually serving a much more modernist, realistic goal: to depict the essential essence of what it describes. The book is and is not postmodern. It is not the typical Indian novel, but in the end, how else to depict India? The book tells the story of addiction but also freedom (or are they the same thing?), of homeland and exile (and are those also the same?). Like its central character, it is neither, either, and/or both.
Though the book is filled with violence and despair, and though the author avoids sentimentality, the book’s closing is, if not entirely happy, mostly warm. It becomes clear that what these characters have been trying to obliterate, with drugs, violence, sex, religion, etc., is not the self exactly. It is not even the cold infinity of death or the strangling struggle of life—it is loneliness, the barrier between ourselves and our loved ones, between us and the universe. Dimple, who we as readers care about most, is on to it early, when she first tries opium and finally feels beloved, “to be beloved is to be not alone.” She returns to it at the end of her life: “I knew what a lucky life I was given and I understood everything. . . most of all, how wrong it was to withhold affection from those who need it most, which is to say, everyone.”
“I am beloved” Dimple tells Rashid, “And you, dear friend, you’re beloved too.” Love transcends self, time, place, life, death. In the end, despite all the book’s departures from form, its unsettling violence, its drug-addled failures, despite the fact that it refuses to hit you over the head with this message (as the pathaar maar might his victims, thinking he is doing them a favor), what Dom, and we, eventually see is that love conquers all. Love is hidden away in most of the book, but in the end, love is what matters, love is what allows for communication, for the dead to reach out to us, for us to move beyond that veil and no longer be alone. If you dare, take your own look behind the veil, in Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis.