- Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Depictions of India in western pop culture seemed to change little throughout the 20th century. Going back at least to Forster’s A Passage to India, from a western point of view the inscrutability and mystical nature of the sub-continent are its defining traits. Often it is portrayed as a gateway to personal enlightenment, as its mystery is held up as a mirror in which Westerners can see the truth about themselves. The films Outsourced and Eat, Pray, Love are prime examples. Alternatively, many narratives told from an Indian perspective (yet still told to a western audience,) give romanticized views of the day to day life of the country (i.e., Slumdog Millionaire.) In contrast, Narcopolis gives us a story that is ringing with a genuineness lacking in many novels and films.
A graphic exploration of the drug scene in Bombay (later Mumbai,) Thayil’s novel delves painfully into the murk of poverty and opium dens with a host of characters, each visceral, shocking, and believable. Given depth through flashbacks, direct description or difficult rumors, the novel imbues each of its players with the [End Page 244] hopelessness and desperation of their individual addictions, whether to narcotics, money, sex, violence or self-destruction in general. As the characters descend into spirals of inevitable ruin, Thayil reveals to us which of them we are meant to connect with and which we are to feel are all too deserving of their tragic fates. However, the tone of the novel, that of a voice angered by its own impotence, makes it clear from the outset that all of the conclusions will be hopelessly similar.
In a particularly painful scene, a character describes a vision had while detoxing from heroin; that of a graphic rape of a child, which brings together filth, violence and evil. The narrator then vehemently declares “This is India.” (235.) It meshes into the national identity the defilement of the nation’s people, starting in childhood, as if to suggest that India itself is responsible for the horrific lives the characters find themselves trapped in. India itself, by way of expanding the opium and heroin industries, traded the lives of its citizens for profit. While never skirting the personal responsibility in addiction, Thayil manages to peel back a lot of the naive stereotypes concerning the sub-continent and makes a convincing narrative that India has left many of its people with escape into drugs and addiction as their best available life choice.
As a novel, Narcopolis is difficult. Its structure spreads across nearly thirty years of Bombay’s history, and while each character is vivid and alive, some, particularly Rumi (at first a seemingly unassuming character), are not apportioned time that accords with their impact on the story. All of them addicts, Rumi’s drug is violence, and his actions cause fearful nights for many in the Bombay drug world, yet his appearances are disproportionately few until the end of the novel. By its very nature, the sprawl of the text is intimidating and limiting in depth.
But perhaps that is instead a strength of the prose. Despite his limited actual presence, Rumi left an indelible impression on the narrative. Another, even smaller, character is one of the most telling of the structure of the country itself. Salim is a shop boy, and therefore much better off than many of the other faces we see, or so we are led to believe. He doesn’t have to sleep in the street, beg for food or drugs, or fight for any of his basic needs. Then we find out that the owner of the shop where he works rapes him regularly, and he is resigned to it for the most part. It harkens to the previously mentioned vision and underscores the thrust of the novel. India may seem mystical and exotic to us, but look a little closer and you will see what it does to its people. It exploits, defiles, destroys, and in the end leaves every one for dead. The narrative does not have much difficulty in giving us characters whose...