WRITING STYLE: 5/5
ENTERTAINMENT QUOTIENT: 4.5/5
nar·co (/ˈnärkō/) – A prefix added to the start of a word to indicate sleep; it has originated from the Greek word nark, meaning numbness.
po·lis (/ˈpōləs/) – A state or a society; originated from the ancient Greek city named polis.
Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroine of this story – these are the words with which Jeet Thayil begins his debut book Narcopolis and in my opinion, is one of the best opening lines. The book is about the lives of a few people, bound together by a common passion – Opium, and about Bombay, in a way we have never heard of before. Bombay is stripped off its glamour, riches, beaches, skylines and we are taken to Shuklaji Street, to Rashid’s opium den, and are impelled to see the other side of Bombay.
“I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay.”
The narrator of this story is an opium pipe – a pipe older than life itself. The story is both simple and complex at the same time; simple because of its unfussy structure and complicated because of its knotty characters – the lives they lead, the dilemmas they face and the contexts that led them into being what they are now – opium addicts.
Narcopolis is a maze of human temperaments, which if grasped, will surely move your heart. It begins with Dimple, a hijra pipeman at Rashid’s, who is prettier than most women; about how she was castrated before the age of 10 and compelled to become a eunuch; how she was forced to sell her body in order to live; how she was drawn towards opium and the solace it gave her and how she came to become a pipeman at Rashid’s.
We are also told about Mr. Lee, the Chinaman, his childhood in China, his perils during the war, his journey to India and his addiction to opium; about Rashid, the owner of the chandukhana, his journey from being a small time peddler to becoming an entrepreneur, his addiction to opium and then to heroin; about Rumi, a regular at Rashid’s and his tryst with rehab. There are many more such characters figuring in the book and all of them share a common premise – they are addicted to opium.
Narcopolis is the journey of Bombay from 1970s to 2000s. Justifying the title, this voyage is detailed in terms of the addictions – first opium, then garad heroin and then cocaine; chandukhanas like Rashid’s then, and now the bars and nightclubs. The habits have changed, the addictions have changed, even the name has changed, but Bombay, at its heart, is still the same; its citizens are still the same.
This book is a must have on your bookshelves. The poetic beauty of Jeet’s writing style is splendid. The detail with which the characters are brought to life, in limited words, is praise worthy. I’ve never seen a stronger character build-up. If you need another reason to read this, it was nominated for the Man Booker prize in 2012.