The plot, such as it is, hangs like loose, swaying threads from the garments of the habituées of an opium room on Shuklaji Street run by the twice-married, permanently intoxicated Rashid. His assistant and sometime lover is Dimple, aka Zeenat, a hijra (transsexual), who does not use the words woman or man to describe herself. ‘Some days I’m neither, or I’m nothing. On other days I feel I’m both,’ she tells the anonymous narrator.
Around Rashid, Dimple, Rashid’s Chinese predecessor Mr Lee and regulars like Ramesh aka Rumi and said narrator, stories swirl like smoke, drifting from Bombay’s hard streets to revolutionary China, from hijra brothels to a detox facility run by a former monk and heroin addict.
Novelist Hari Kunzru’s experience of Narcopolis mirrors my own: ‘Stories unfold and hang in the air. They slide into each other, until you’re not quite sure how long you’ve been reading it.’
A former alcoholic and heroin addict, Thayil offers unique insight into the world he describes. While he doesn’t shirk away from the awfulness of addiction, he also captures its allure — especially as an alternative to the available reality. As Rumi says of Bombay as he queues outside Rashid’s opium room, waiting for an African drug mule to shit out the heroin he has smuggled in, ‘[H]ow the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs? …I challenge you to live here without turning to Grade A narcotics’.
Like Bombay itself, Narcopolis is not for the faint-hearted, though the prose in this 2012 Man Booker Prize nominated debut is lyrical and mesmerising, even as it describes scenes of terrible poverty and cruelty.
But for readers like me who value the insights that a local writer can shed on a place as confronting and intriguing as the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) and who welcome glimpses into worlds beyond our imagination, Narcopolis will not only satisfy: it will blow your mind.