By Jeet Thayil
Penguin Books, 2012
Rashid’s opium den, Shuklaji Street, Bombay. Narcopolis tells the story, over the course of twenty plus years, of Rashid, Dimple, Rumi and Mr. Lee. The main characters are addicts whose days revolve around multiple visits with pipes. Rashid’s family lives above his den. Dimple is a hijra prostitute. Mr. Lee came to Bombay from China and the second part of the book tells his story and the history of the pipes at Rashid’s. Rumi is an addict and a criminal. And a narrator, who also smokes pipes, jumps in and out of the story, spending time at Rashid’s in the late 70s/early 80s, coming back to the area 20 years later to see how the city and culture has changed.
This book fictionalizes a subculture and a period of history. The first and last words of the book are Bombay. It is a novel about a place or way of living, and how the characters’ lives are impacted by their addictions. Dimple’s life story is described more than some of the others and I was drawn to her history and circumstances. This is a beautiful book, but not always an easy one to follow. The point of view jumps around and small characters become a passing focus. But I was very taken with the poetic prose and the world of Rashid’s. The writing reminded me of a combination of Roberto Bolano and Michael Ondaatje – rambling and expansive storytelling, with poetic and precise language.
Thayil is a poet and former addict who has told interviewers he chose the topic for his book because he was “writing what he knew.” The book was shortlisted for the Man Asian prize and the Man Booker prize in 2012. Check out the book cover for the Indian edition. I love this art!