Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city…
These, the opening lines of Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, are breathless (quite literally so: there are no full-stops for the first seven pages) and intense. The sense of the immediacy they evoke draws the reader head-first into Thayil’s disturbing vision of Bombay.
The novel alternates between narrators, granting particular focus to the voices of Dimple, Mr Lee and Rashid. As a eunuch brothel-worker, a Chinese immigrant and the proprietor of the opium den where much of the novel takes place, these characters provide a varied perspective on the lives of the city’s poor. These characters feel vibrant and fleshed-out, and Thayil’s writing captures the lives of the minor characters with similar intensity, creating a panoramic vision of Bombay. This is a city ravaged by the dual evils of poverty and civil war. The novel portrays poverty as an experience which shapes your entire worldview; to be poor is to see the world through different eyes.
There was nothing incredible about it, she said. I thought it was so because I spoke English, because I read books, and because my parents paid for my education and my upkeep. For me everything was surprising, the world was full of wonder, the most random idiotic occurence was incredible because my luck made it so. For people like her, for the poor, the only incredible thing in the whole world was money and the mysterious ways in which it worked.
As well as creating a stark vision of the underside of Bombay, the novel provides a portrait of addiction. Through opium, the characters escape their troubled surroundings; this transcendence comes at a high price, however, as the drugs are imbued with their own destructive power. Narcopolis expresses the paradoxes of addiction with perfect, and sometimes unsettling, honesty: even though their magic is only temporary, they provide a comfort which cannot be found elsewhere. They offer the chance of oblivion, a reassurance as complete as a mother’s embrace. Drugs remove the consumer from their own body, from their humanity itself. By disconnecting the mind, you are ‘no longer human or animal or vegetal’. Addiction wields such a terrible power because it seems to offer a great deal in return for your enslavement. As Dimple argues,
…the main thing nobody mentions is the comfort of it, how good it is to be a slave to something, the regularity and the habit of addiction, 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.
Narcopolis has a simultaneously vivid and dreamlike style; images of the novel will linger long after reading.