“I don’t miss you. I don’t miss you when
I open a window and light fills the room
like water pouring into a paper cup,
or when I hear a woman’s white dress shine
like new coins and I know I could follow
my feet to the river and let my life go
away from me.”
-Jeet Thayil (To Baudelaire)
Jeeth Thayil is a compelling raconteur of sensory perceptions. A conjurer of musical expressions, he has several anthologies of poetry to his credit. He has a unique ability of capturing life at the cusps of dreams and consciousness, memories and yearning, realities and nothingness, life and death.
Having emerged from a prolonged nada of substance abuse, Thayil remains lucid enough to document the ‘secret history’ of Bombay through his first novel, Narcopolis. The outcome is a scorching saga of a city traced through its narcotic dens and whorehouses housing a motley crew of addicts, pimps, prostitutes, eunuchs, drug-lords, murderers and religious fanatics. He knows the blue smoke inside out and is familiar with the valleys and plateaus of intoxication like the back of his palm. He has observed the chandulis and garadulis in microscopic detail, their execrable lives, their abysmal despair and the many tiers of deaths that they undergo.
The story is told in the voice of Dom Ullis who has been deported from the States for attempting to possess drugs, circa 1970s. Back in Bombay, he quickly finds his way to Rashid’ khana where opium and opium smoking is a cult. He runs into Dimple, a pretty, mysterious eunuch who is a master of preparing perfect opium pipes. She is a also an adept guru who initiates the new customers into the fine art of smoking, “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, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth….” We learn more about Rashid, an educated Muslim and a Bachelor of Arts and the master of the den, dedicated to finest opium, Bengali, his bookkeeper and other regulars to the place.
Buried in Dimple’s poignant memories is an unloved childhood, her abandonment and sale to a priest by his widowed mother and her transformation into a eunuch, her betrayal of Lee, a deeply suffering Chinese army man who had escaped his torturous country in a stolen jeep. Lee had discovered soon that he had driven himself out of the frying pan into the hellfire of India, a filthy and chaotic land. He had smoked opium to reduce the interminable pain, just like his father. He had taken Dimple into his fold and rescued her from the sickening pain, launching her on the irreversible journey atop smoke pipes. Dimple had graduated well in the intricacies of smoking opium and had moved out of the whorehouse to a room above Rashid’s den.
However, much more than Dimple, it is “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story.” There is a subtle pun packed in the word ‘heroin’ in the opening sentence of the novel, indicating both a protagonist and a substance. Heroin also signifies a sinister transition in the business of intoxication as it overthrows opium, the age-old queen of delirium. The change is accompanied with feral hatred among communities, festering crime, ushering in of turbulent and heinous times that would ravage and possess the soul of the city. Innocent street-dwellers get crushed mercilessly by a psychopath. Hindu and Muslim butcher each other ruthlessly. Dens offer chemical compounds and cocaine laced with rat poison. And instead of smoking exotic opium pipes transfixed in somnambulant postures, the addicts are forced to wait in queues as the Nigerians pass their shit and with it the hidden cocaine vials.
For such a perturbing subject matter, Thayil has pulled a book of sparkling beauty and startling sensitivity in Narcopolis. The book opens with a hypnotic sentence that runs into six and a half pages, effectively vapourising chronological time and space between dreams, conversations and visitations from absent friends, setting up the mood for the rest of the story, tightening the vicious grip. He has drawn undoubtedly from the dark treasure of his personal experiences, but the vividness with which he has described the varied hallucinations, frozen suspensions, mutable liquid nightmares and bubbling despair, puts it alongside prose epics of the highest order. His language is lyrical but intricate, unfolding layer by layer. Narrative is in synch with emotions, languorous when speaking of the blue smoke, leaden when describing nightmares, grisly when dealing with depravity, sublime when courting with reason.
Thayil may have commemorated a way of life in the pages of the book but it is never a glorification of drug addiction. The saddest characters in Narcopolis, Dimple, Lee and his father suffer many deaths in their lives. The first death is to be born unloved and being renounced by the family. Then comes the death by cessation of bodily existence, to be followed by the death when people stop remembering you. Surely, addiction is yet another layer of death that quietly but determinedly eats up the space and fences between life and oblivion. Transformation of Lee’s father into an insect in the days preceding his death is reminiscent of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Newton Xavier, a legless, heartless painter-poet of the Narcopolis, sums up the fate of the addicts beautifully, “An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does….Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or at the very least, to not live.”