It’s taken me a while to read the last of the books on the Man Booker Prize shortlist (as work can get in the way of my reading) but finally, I have read Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. This first novel is a popular contender for the Man Booker Prize, so I was looking forward to seeing what it’s like, although I must be honest and admit that a book about opium addiction in 1970s Bombay is not something I would normally find appealing. Nonetheless, this is an interesting book, offering a narrative of opium addiction which is convincing (unsurprisingly, since I gather Thayil has had experience of addiction) and which examines the conflicts inherent in Indian life. I was hooked by the first sentence, which is the entire prologue and takes seven pages: one is rushed along into the city in this sentence; I’m not sure I am as convinced by the prose of the rest of the book, however, though one can tell that Thayil is a poet.
The narrator, Dom, is mostly absent from the novel; he tells us that the opium pipe will tell its own tale, as indeed it does. From the Bombay opium dens of Shuklaji Street in the 1970s to contemporary Mumbai nightclubs, this is a novel about the changes that have taken place in the city, and the changes in the residents of the dens. But the real hero of this troubled and troubling novel is Bombay, as the gush of words in the feverish, dramatic prologue tell us. But there are other, equally complex stars here: particularly Dimple, the self-educated, brave eunuch who serves opium in Rashid’s opium den. The arrival of heroin alters the world the characters know: but, it seems to me, this book is only ostensibly about drugs and addiction: underneath it is about people who are fighting for survival, who, in difficult, often terrible, circumstances are searching for a meaning to life, whether that is love, sex, drugs, or God. There is a lot of talk about God in this novel: whether a Christian, Muslim or Hindu God, or something else entirely (a character says ‘in Bumbai money is the only religion’), it is clear that what everyone seems to need is to worship. If this need is not fulfilled, addiction is one way in which the characters can dull the pain of the absence of God in a world where life is cheap. Another, sometimes complementary, way in which the characters do this is, interestingly, through literature. Figures such as Dimple who have had little opportunity for education read voraciously, and hold forth about literature (although these passages seem a little stagy compared with the rest of the novel). In fact, reading is, it seems, itself an addiction:
‘He read because it gave him instant gratification in a way nothing else did, and, as was the case with all addicts, gratification was the important thing.’
The gratification of reading this novel is slow, I think: the prose is finely-tuned, conjuring both the sharp, lurid visions and the hazy, narcotic dreams of the addicts, making no concessions to the reader who is not familiar with certain Indian words (I looked a lot up), and following a sometimes slightly haphazard chronology. And it is all the better for it: a book of this kind, with this subject matter, would certainly be awful if it tried to be accessible or light. The characters are not appealing, I think, but they are compelling, which is more important. As it is, while it’s not really my cup of tea, it’s well worth a read.