Jeet Thayil’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel is set in Bombay, India during the 1970s and 80s, where the city’s slums are overrun with dogs, children, and detriment, and the opium dens are always full. Narcopolis chronicles the lives of several addicts during the cultural shift from opium to cheaply-made heroin. We meet Rashid, who owns and operates the opium shop along with the help of Dimple, a eunuch prostitute known for making the best pipe in the city. Our narrator, Dom, wafts in and out of the story, and slowly, through flickering opium-blurred images, we see a cultural portrait emerge – one of religion, gender, sex, tradition, addiction, and the fine balance between pleasure and pain.
Narcopolis explores the multifaceted nature of the “lowest of the low, prostitutes and criminals and drug addicts, people with no faith in god or man, no faith in anything except the truth of their own senses.” And Narcopolis is indeed a novel of the senses. It’s not always pleasant or comfortable, but Thayil’s masterful, poetic prose is impossible to ignore – primarily because it will make you squirm and cringe. But at the same time, Thayil’s language is honest, sorrowful, and filled with simple, but wise observations about the relationship between freedom and addiction.
Jeet Thayil has said in recent interviews that he was himself an opium addict for 20 years, and this perspective has allowed him to write a book that is neither condemning nor glorifying drug culture, but rather presenting its reality from the perspective of the addicts. The characters are tortured and miserable, but they’re also sympathetic and hopeful. With Narcopolis, Thayil enlightens readers to the true nature of obsession and addiction with no political agenda or judgements. For these characters, the addiction is consuming, but it does not snuff out their humanity. Only Thayil’s empathy and memory can inject the hopeless and destitute wanderers of Narcopolis with the compassion and understanding that their reputations so often belie.
This review was simultaneously published on Hooked Bookworm on 10/8/12