City of opium and shimmering prose
FICTION: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews Narcopolis By Jeet Thayil Faber, 292pp. £12.99
DOM ULLIS, the narrator of this grotesquely beguiling, episodic odyssey, recalls two return journeys to Bombay. The first makes him a drug addict; the second sees him revisit the sombre legacy of that past. The poet and performer Jeet Thayil’s beautiful and sordid debut novel evokes days and nights that neither began nor ended. Nothing appeared to matter or even exist beyond the moment of embarking on nightmarish hazes induced by an addiction that is presented as a disembodied social ritual.
It all begins with a dramatic prologue in which Dom recalls being sent back to India. “I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay . . . I’m turning my head and inhaling, you do the rest . . . I’m not separating but connecting, I’m giving in to the lovely stories.”
Well, the stories are not lovely, but they are vivid, even unforgettable, as are some of the characters, most particularly Dimple. Admittedly, she or he could have wandered directly from the pages of any number of myths or dark fairy tales. Castrated as a boy, Dimple becomes a woman and is bound to a life of service in the sex industry. When not working in the hijra’s (or eunuch’s) brothel, Dimple prepares the opium pipes in a den run by the laconic Rashid. As Dom says of Dimple: “Then I asked if she was a man or a woman and she nodded as if it was the first time she’d been asked. She was about 25 then and she had a habit in those days of shaking the hair into her eyes and smiling for no reason at all, a sweet smile as I remember, with no hint there of the changes that would overtake her.”
It is the story of a drug city, that metropolis being Bombay of the 1970s, and it is by this name, not Mumbai, that Thayil refers to a seething mass of humanity contained in squalor. It is a livid hell; poverty and violence are the defining characteristics. Mention is made of visiting foreigners, the tourists, some attracted by drugs, who come to see the hunger and the suffering as if they were but theatrical elements in an ongoing street performance.
Thayil is a former addict, but, far more importantly, he is a very good writer, and it is his shimmering, graceful prose as much as his personal experience that brings this book to life. Dimple is the tragic central presence, intent on education and beauty. It is Dimple who puts the question that the narrator admits to being unable to answer: “She asked me why it was that I, who could read and write and had a family that cared enough about me to finance my education, who could do anything I wanted, go anywhere and be anyone, why was I an addict?”
Dom drifts in and out of the action, replicating the way in which the consciousness of the opium users ebbs and flows between pleasure and horror. He may be telling the story, but he never asserts himself as a character in the way Dimple, passive and doomed, dominates. For a while she had had a kindly mentor, Mr Lee, who regarded her as a daughter. He had arrived in Bombay from communist China and had taught her some Chinese. Their exchanges are often poignant, and Thayil distances himself from these passages, making them even more effective: “She wanted to know what it was like to lose a war and a homeland at one stroke and to travel for a long time and arrive in a place where no one knew you. He told her that it was like dying or being paralysed, a catastrophic occurrence that no one was equipped to deal with . . .”