City of Irreverents

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Penguin Press, 2012, 304 pp.

It’s difficult not to like Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, not the least because the novel irreverently does what few in Maharashtra (or in India) are able to do without bringing down the ire of certain political supremos: it defies the unofficial ban on calling the city by its more cosmopolitan moniker, “Bombay.”  This is, incidentally, the first and last word of the novel.

And the irreverence continues, in ways (and with words) that would make a Mumbaikar cringe.  The novel takes such pleasure in describing the proper way to consume opium in a long pipe (“The length is very important, it cools the smoke as it travels”), what sex is like for a hijra (“I feel pleasure but not, what’s the word?, relief”), and the pleasures of random acts of violence (“what he was unprepared for the joy that shuddered up from his hands into his brain”) that it is nigh on impossible not to follow it wherever it turns.

In fact, what is so thrilling about the irreverence of a novel like Narcopolis is the sheer audacity of attempting to understand the dramatic changes Bombay undergoes since independence by tracing the history of the city as a node in the global traffic of opium.  This also helps to explain the novel’s (and our) enduring fascination with a performance like Zeenat Aman’s “Dum Maro Dum” in Hare Rama, Hare Krishna. Bombay’s transformation from colonial port to decadent cultural capital, in Thayil’s rendering, is a story of the rise and fall of certain kinds ofnasha, before they lose out to their faster, harder cousins: heroin, cocaine, and the synthetics.

In this telling, Bombay becomes a city populated by characters that could be taken straight from Sa’adat Hassan Manto’s world and rendered sensitively in a modern light: a Chinese dissident fleeing Communist Party rule with his traditional opium pipes; a lapsed Muslim who owns an opium den; a religiously ecumenical hijra (dare we say Amar, Akbar, Anthony); a wife-beating middle manager; a Bengali babu who manages the accounts; and a thinly veiled surrogate for the author, a Keralan Christian addict and artiste who spends substantial time abroad.  It is also a portrait of Bombay in which Mumbaikers are not at the center.

As a result, the novel is able to do things with language and form that are definitely innovative.  The soporific style and the narcotic haze in which the plot of the novel is delivered (and it’s important to say that this is a novel with the thinnest of plots) are remarkable in their distance from the expected formulas of Mumbai noir or Filmfare glitterati speak.  But it is also able to do this by linking Bombay up to the global traffic in narcotics as it stretches from China, through Southeast Asia, and into Pakistan and Afghanistan, making the story of Bombay an international story spoken in international English.  In every sense, Thayil’s Bombay has not yet been written, and even perhaps seen.

The book has been much in the news in the past several days because it made the long list for the Man Booker Prize, the unacknowledged kingmaker of contemporary Indian fiction in English.  But even here, the novel is supposed to be irreverent, flouting the longstanding tradition of historical allegories, wordplay, and leftist politics which have characterized the blockbuster novels in English.  I say “supposed to” intentionally—despite the stylistic and thematic differences from the Rushdie-Roy-Ghosh trimurti, there are plenty of similarities, as well (“Satan/Shaitan/Shat On”).

The problem with the novel’s impious attitude towards literature and politics (and it’s fetishization of irreverence in general) is that it mistakes novelty for insight and titillation for drama.  The novel’s greatest strength, it bears underlining, is its sensitive rendering of characters that are rarely deemed deserving of ink, and it brings a deeply humanist skill at portraiture to bear in giving flesh to otherwise caricatured types.

But one of the pitfalls of such an approach is that the novel is also mesmerized by the aphoristic nuggets produced by these characters in their drug-induced stupor.  So what is supposed to be philosophical (in the way that hallucination and religious revelry are kins) turns out to be clichéd and underwhelming, the drug at the end of its high, not at its height.  So we learn that “women are more evolved biologically and emotionally” than men are or that “childhood was a kind of affliction, certainly physical and possibly mental” as if these were quotable truths suspended in the fog of the narrative.

The other pitfall is that the novel misses the important role drugs played in transforming the economy of the city.  The characters in Narcopolis are more victims than agents, and so by the end of the novel almost all of them are (spoiler alert!) dead as the narrator nostalgically hopes to recreate the world that was centered on opium in his distaste for the world that is built on cocaine, a world of cheap shimmer and dead surfaces.  But opium was not a victimless indulgence, especially not for the owners of the opium dens, whose children become in the new Bombay the inheritors of a vast criminal operation.

Narcopolis, though, is definitely worth a read, despite some of these shortcomings, because it attempts to make sense of Bombay from the margins, from the transformations taking place in the brothel and the opium den, as opposed to from the Ambani skyscraper or the Imperial Towers.  It’s a reminder of both the seductions and the dangers inherent in all acts of irreverence, and why understanding the libertarian utopia of the addict (“are addicts free? Are they in fact the freest of men?”) is not, ultimately, sustainable or durable, even as it is preferable to some of the darker realities of Mumbai.