I should start by giving full credit to Mark from Eleutherophobia for pointing me in the direction of Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil is a well-respected Indian poet, whose own history with drug abuse seems to have inspired this, his debut novel. I don’t read a great number of drug novels, for no other reason that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and people don’t seen to write that many? Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.
In the chandu khanas of Shuklaji Street, Mumbai, opium is the drug of choice. Among the hundreds of dens offering people a good time is one belonging to Rashid, where our story takes place. As we follow the lives of his employees and his clients, we uncover a part of Indian history that many people would like to forget – a time when opium was king and where prostitution was the past time de jour. As time passes, though, other drugs begin to make a move, and everything changes.
There’s a danger, I think, when you write a drug novel that you go too far in trying to make the whole thing kind of like a trip. I worry that Thayil has gone too far in that direction for Narcopolis to have a really punchy effect on the reader. One kind of meanders through some scenes that seem to have little to do with each other, and then all of a sudden, we’re thirty years on, at the end of our journey. Maybe this isn’t just a drug novel problem – I wonder if Thayil’s history as a poet meant he spent more time crafting the (admittedly gorgeous) language at the expense of a clear through line.
Bonus points, though, to Thayil’s evocation of Dimple as a protagonist, though. She is a hijra, a man who has become a woman, and the gender politics at play whenever anyone new encounters her are subtly played, but (I can only imagine) well-evoked. It must be tiring to be asked whether or not one’s genitals are still intact, and Dimple manages to make the best of many bad situations. Though we are introduced to a narrator early on, it is Dimple who quickly takes over the story, becoming out eyes and ears in a world where morality is not quite what we might expect. She has ideas above her station, and her attempts to educate herself in both philosophy and the ENglish language are an endearing reminder as to the dire situation in which all these people find themselves.
It is, as ever, a depressing evocation of a part of India that so many writers seem willing to ignore. It is not hard to read only a few pages, and already feel like you need a bath or shower, the grime from the dirty crack dens and seedy men sleeping with prostitutes somehow coming off the page and into your own life. These are characters that, despite probably being good people, have been sucked into a world where they can do nothing but take drugs and fall into habits that die hard.
There is almost some redemption for some of these people near the end – people find their way into rehab, but it never sticks. One character remarks that the choice between rehab and prison is like a choice between syphilis and gonorrhoea. It’s a charming simile, but it really highlights just how much these characters are addicted to these damaging drugs. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.
A shift in tone near the end sees a particularly poignant scene. We have moved into the twenty first century, an India I find easier to recognise, full of young professionals trying to make more and more money, trying to get rich quick. They have assembled at a party in a fancy skyscraper in their fancy suits and dresses, and they are all getting higher than the Empire State in the bathroom on cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy. Thayil show us that drugs are never going away – they will simply change and evolve with time, and for some people, they will always be attractive, no matter how much they get fucked by them.
In the end, Narcopolis is less than the sum of its many promising parts. The beginning monologue is blisteringly good, and though Thayil’s style is nice, the plot loses some of its way through the middle of the novel. The end returns to the promise of the initial pages, but it ends up being too little too late. A good, but not great, debut from a poet who has the potential to marry a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter.
I also heartily approve of the Colin Hay cameo.