Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil

8 April 2013
Prologue and Chapters 1-4 – Book 1, The City of O
Let me get my prejudices out of the way first. My heart sank as I read the sprawling opening sentence – you know, the one that hasn’t ended by the time you’re turning the page – because… because what? There’s the familiar figure of the urgent, lapel-grabbing first-person narrator – and ok, yes, I do know he’s too laid-back, literally, to grab anybody’s lapels, but you know what I mean – and what does he do? He makes himself into a framing device, tells us exactly what he’s doing now – ‘wait now, light me up so we do this right’ – and… and it’s a trope. Saleem, the great-grand-daddy of them all, does exactly this in Midnight’s Children. So does Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Balram in White Tiger. And something I know about the authors of those novels is that they were all educated in the West. I was guessing that Jeet Thayil probably was as well, because novelists from the Indian subcontinent who reach Man Booker shortlists usually are. (I checked. He was.)

I should shut up about it. The authors of these books can’t help their backgrounds, and Man Booker judges – and the publishers who push particular novels in their direction – are going to go for what is palatable to Western readers. I suppose I make these links because I’m looking for something familiar as Thayil presents a kaleidoscopic vision not only of Bombay but of his novel’s narrative persona: ‘since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now….’ This is a few lines in, but by the end of Book 1 we still don’t know who is telling this. The person who seems to be the narrator at the beginning can’t possibly know what we are told about the interior lives of other characters: the point is made specifically that one of them, Dimple, never tells about her encounter with another just before we read all about it and the nightmares that accompany it.

This is ok, isn’t it? That other character, the painter/poet Newton Pinter Xavier – doesn’t Thayil love names? – has by now taken us through the thickets of Post-modernism in a drunken lecture, so it would be foolish of the reader to expect anything so conventional as narrative consistency. However… once things settle down, and once we’ve accepted the narrative on its own terms, much of it is rather conventionally told. Despite the acrobatics of the Prologue and the occasional swooping descents into hallucination and nightmare, most of what goes on is perfectly understandable. And there isn’t anything less new in fiction than an omniscient narrator.

So, what do we know? We know that the narrator, having been arrested in New York in the 1970s for drug dealing, is repatriated to India. He discovers opium, and the denizens of Rashid’s canna. (The text, unsurprisingly, is punctuated with Hindi vocabulary.) Chapter 1 is focused on Dimple, and we piece together her history during Book 1. She is sometimes described (particularly by Xavier) as a eunuch, but it’s more complicated than that. ‘Cut’ before the age of ten, she is a ‘hijra’, a transsexual whose adult life, as far as we’ve been told so far, is in prostitution. Constant aches that she suffers led the madame of her brothel to introduce her to Mr Lee and his magical medicine: she is an addict by the time the narrator meets her, working as a pipe wallah in the canna. Her mother sold her into prostitution early on, and it isn’t at all clear how much say Dimple had in the operation that changed her life. Ok.

Through some fairly conventional-seeming twists in the plot, the life of the narrator – do we ever find out his name? – becomes closely linked to that of the internationally feted artist/poet Xavier. (We know how famous he is because the narrator, as part of Dimple’s education, has been reading her the cover-story about him in Time magazine.) After the lecture at which he is too drunk to stand up – all the main characters so far are addicts of some kind – Xavier is put in a taxi with the narrator. And guess where they end up. Xavier, who seems to know about opium from previous experience, becomes besotted by it all over again. In Thayil’s scheme, he represents some problematic aspects of late 20th Century culture. He makes self-assured pronouncements on almost everything, deciding that had Baudelaire known about opium it would have represented the pinnacle of the pleasure he sought.

Pleasure is the main driving force this novel in Book 1. The narrator is still an addict 30 years later as he tells us about this time – although there’s a clue in the second line that he’s moved on: Bombay is ‘the hero or heroin of this story.’ Mr Lee, as a Chinese, insists on the subtleties of other pleasures. He might or might not be just another addict, but he criticises the Indian way of overcooking and over-spicing food, and of being incapable of savouring the delicate flavours of tea. But the main pleasure, and one of the main talking-points, is sex.

There’s the marketing of sex. Early on, a tourist tells a pimp that he needs a ‘USP’ to bring in more business. Later, speaking to Dimple’s madame, Xavier goes into the niceties of genital modification and breast implants in order to give the customer what he’s looking for. He also recommends burkas as a selling-point. Right from Chapter 1 Dimple wants to talk about how different sex is for men and women. The distinction isn’t subtle. Whatever meanings a woman might bring to a sexual relationship, she says, men are exactly the same as dogs – and most of her experiences in the rest of Book 1 seem to explore this idea. After the night in the canna, Xavier follows her to ‘007’, the brothel, insisting both on sex and that she wear a burka. And…

…and we’re off and away into her dreams, dreams of blue light under endless closed doors, the blue water behind one of them, the dead men – if that’s what they are – who rise from the depths. There are a lot of dreams in this book, and I might be mixing them up. But that same night, the narrator wakes from opium-induced sleep to find himself bleeding profusely from a cut between his legs… until he really wakes up, uninjured.

What else? Plenty. There’s a killer on the loose, giving some texture to the narrator’s insistence early on that this is a book in which the main story is that of Bombay. The poorest people in the city are the target, so instantly the killer acquires mythical status. They are political killings. No, they are an embodiment of the abject poverty that blights the city. The killer acquires a Hindi name like a figure from fairy-tale – but the killings are real, and described in lurid detail. A mother is brutally murdered, while her child… I’ll spare you the details. There are the protocols and conventions of prostitution and opium addiction. There are men who, like Xavier, make pronouncements they don’t expect to have contradicted. With Xavier it’s art – colour is of no use to the painter, only to poets and musicians, apparently – while, as Dimple points out, when Lee makes statements about life in general and his own pleasures in particular there is simply no room for debate.

And, as always in novels written in this genre, there’s religion. There’s the blue Christ of Xavier’s paintings, an image I remember from Midnight’s Children; in fact, all the religious iconography and mythology that Thayil holds up for our examination is Christian. In a long riff about patron saints, Xavier lists and categorises them in ways that make them sound as exotic and bizarre as anything proposed by the Hinduism in some of those other novels. The narrator is a ‘Syrian Christian’, Xavier is a Catholic…. I suspect Thayil is writing about what he knows. Which is fair enough.

10 April
Book 2 – The Story of the Pipe
Writing about Wuthering Heights recently I described it as being like Inception. In the case of Bronte’s novel, it’s to do with narratives within narratives: the story of the main characters reaches the reader via an outsider, who himself relates what he has been told by a minor character who had been a witness to shattering events. Thayil isn’t doing exactly the same thing in Narcopolis, but not far into Book 2 we’re a long way from the experience of the original narrator. We’re used to him describing, in that omniscient way of his, the activities and interior lives of the people he has come to know. But suddenly we are taken down another layer, into a story told to one of these other characters by someone the narrator will never meet. We get that familiar level of intimate detail, reaching far enough into this minor character’s consciousness to reveal the contents of his dreams.

This is ok, and I wonder if the reader’s disorientation is something that Thayil is actually aiming for. When we think we’re comfortably established in one place, Bombay in the early 1980s, suddenly we embark on the entire life story of this man who is in no way a major player in the novel. For something like 50 pages we get, among other things, a brief history of the Cultural Revolution in China. Thayil makes Lee’s father a writer of harmless comic novels who finds himself suffering the attentions of local Party officials, and for a short while we’re in the well-trodden territory of the treatment of writers in totalitarian regimes. (It’s a more brutal version of what happens to Anna’s father in the Stalinist Soviet Union in The Siege by Helen Dunmore, written in 2002.)

But this is a novel in which fictions spin off in unexpected directions, and Thayil examines not only the status and reputation of writers but, in fact, the whole process of writing. He has Mao lecturing writers about the dangers of their habitual individualism and huge egos, and while this is conventional enough at one level – we meet writers who embrace their re-education, or Party apparatchiks who write to hackneyed formulas – at another level Thayil, or somebody, is exploring what it means to be a writer. Writing is art, says Ling Ling before she is brainwashed into toeing the Party line. Lee’s father, by contrast, after spending some weeks in the Party’s hands, kills off his comic anti-hero in a bleak little novel full of anguish and ending in suicide. Then he writes a final defiant book, Prophecy, partly set in the future, and we are told that it includes a narrator describing people’s thoughts that he couldn’t possibly know about. This, of course, is a feature of Narcopolis that readers can’t have failed to notice – and there are other experimental aspects that seem to be mentioned specifically to remind us of the book we’re reading. Suddenly, it seems, this story within a story is doubling back on us. What was I saying about disorientation?

Once Lee’s father is dead – not of his opium addiction, or through the execution advocated by one particularly toadyish writer, but of malnutrition – we get the more straightforwardly told biography of Lee himself. Quite early on there’s sex, described in some detail – it’s anal, in case you’re wondering – with the assistant to a commissar who wants a different life. (She gets it later, but not in the way she’d like.) But the China presented to us in this particular version is a brutal place, and most of the graphic descriptions are of violence. Rival cadres of the military top brass vie for control, while on the streets young men in workers’ groups with idealistic-sounding names go around perpetrating atrocities in feral gangs. Lee is about to be executed by one of these, but it is ousted in time for him to be saved. This takes place during a trip to Wuhan, a city in chaos presented by a general in one of the cadres as a kind of existential experiment regarding the human condition. Well, maybe it is, in the disorientating universe of a novel where there’s no such thing as certainty.

What’s a young officer to do? Returning to Peking, Lee finds out his own faction is probably up for the next purge, as reputations are trashed through the bullying activities of young men under no one’s control. He decides to requisition a vehicle and start driving south. He leaves the chaos of China for a different kind of chaos in India, keeps driving… and washes up in Bombay. He likes the idea of the sea being close by, describes it as ‘the only thing’ that doesn’t disgust him about the city.

The end of his story morphs back into Dimple’s. He charges her with fulfilling his deathbed wishes, including conveying his ashes to China. Her sense of the transmigration of Lee’s soul after she has performed one of the important tasks – an old Chinese friend of his had been told in a dream that he needed his clothes, so Dimple finally burns them – is presented as plausibly as any other event. Well, that’s just the sort of novel this is. And now she can move on to the next stage – although, like the final novel written by Lee’s father, there’s time to mention her regret, fourteen years in the future, that she allowed the ashes stay in India – which means moving out of the brothel and into Rashid’s. There’s more sex, described as intimately as usual, with him and with a customer called Saleem. Her ‘dowry’, as Lee had referred to them, are his two ancient and beautiful pipes – which Rashid immediately claims to be gifts to himself.

Stories, versions…. In China stories had been used as weapons. But now the narrator tells us that Rashid understands the value of a story, and in Bombay this one really is good for business.

13 April
Book 3, The Intoxicated, Chapters 1-7
In other words, more or less everybody, most of the time. Intoxicated, I mean. Or high, or smashed, or wrecked – or suffering from whatever form of cold turkey their particular habit leads to when they don’t get enough of it. Am I making it sound dreary? Well, maybe it is. Maybe that’s the point Thayil is making by beginning Book 3 with Rashid’s morning walk. He smoked too many pipes last night, is therefore suffering ‘opium sickness’ following a night of terrors… and visits Saleem for a couple of lines of coke and some necessary supplies of whiskey and other substances. It’s tawdry stuff, made worse when he happens upon his six-year-old son buying cigarettes. He has to put down the bottles and phials carefully so he can start to beat the boy so badly even he starts to feel ashamed.

Is it all like this? Not quite, but this section of the novel brings the reader closer to the underbelly than we’ve been before. Off the top of my head: the arrival of heroin into Bombay and the efforts of one of the local pushers to move in on Rashid; paid-for sex in the back of a car, followed by assault and robbery; the titillation of men that can be achieved through different forms of female dress, including a kind of fitted burka with nothing worn underneath; the corrupt practices of the local Customs and Excise men, and how easy it is to be closed down if you don’t pay the recently inflated levels of graft; the efficacy of kidnap as a bargaining tool…. Could we be in Little Italy in Godfather 2? Chicago in the Depression? Almost any city in which poverty is made more miserable by criminals out to make a fast buck? You decide.

Book 3 is long, so these seven chapters are only the beginning. At first, once we’ve got Rashid’s bad behaviour out of the way, it doesn’t seem terribly different from Book 2. There are period details, like Saleem’s bell-bottoms and his fantasy of modelling himself on John Travolta. Dimple chooses another cinema role-model, Zeenat Aman, and there’s a trip to the cinema with Rashid to see her in one of her most famous roles, Janice in Dum Maro Dum. It’s a film that Rashid has seen so often he can speak the lines and sing the songs along with the actors…. Is Thayil making a point about the difference between these fantasy worlds and the real world his characters have to inhabit? Of course he is, and soon we’re back to his highly unattractive version of reality.

The criminal rival is Khalid, completely unscrupulous and prepared to sink very low in order to get rid of Rashid. He makes an offer he says Rashid would be a fool to refuse – get into heroin as fast as possible – but Rashid has a sentimental attachment to the refined practice of opium smoking. To his old-school way of thinking, heroin provides far too easy a hit, and he says no. It isn’t long before the canna is closed down, but it turns out to be a simple thing to put the frighteners on Khalid and kidnap his son. Soon it seems to be business as usual.

Meanwhile, we’ve been introduced to other characters. Rumi seems to be just another customer, to go with the European and Australian tourists looking for a slice of authentic India. But then he tells his story, and Thayil introduces us to the idle and status-conscious Indian middle classes. Rumi married into this class when he had a well-paid job, but he’s lost that and now has a desk job in his father-in-law’s company. In fact, like so many of the stories in this novel, it seems to be about why he has become an addict. Basically, his life is so dull it would be impossible to be anything else. He’s the one who has sex with a prostitute in the back of his car, then assaults and robs her afterwards – despite deciding that she is the only honest woman he has ever met. There’s no bullshit with her, just a clear-cut business arrangement.

There’s Bengali, the old man who helps Rashid in the canna and likes to let everyone know how well-educated he is. Ok…. And there’s Dimple, trying out different aspects of female sexuality as she tries on those different outfits, and different personas as she decides her life is exactly like that of Janice in Dum Maro Dum. Ok, again. But it’s time to read on.

18 April
Chapters 8-12 – to the end of Book 3
There’s a grinding inevitability about the title of the last chapter in this section: Rehab, Relapse. It’s far and away the longest chapter in the novel, and… and I’ll get to it later. Before that, Book 3 is all about the downward slide of everybody and everything we’re familiar with, and it makes for gruelling reading. In fact, by the end of it I’d had enough of all of them. Even Dimple, who is the only character Thayil presents sympathetically, is a shell of her former self by the time we’ve reached the early 1990s. She might reach some kind of redemption before the end of the novel – I’ll come back later to why I think so – but things have to get very bad before they can get better.

Does that sound yawningly predictable? Maybe the options are limited for an author who wants to present the realities of addiction. But, my God. Some time ago, while commenting on a different novel (one also listed for the Man Booker Prize, in an earlier year), I wrote this: ‘he’s been doing it throughout the novel. Things getting boring? Have a row/ burst of real or imagined violence/ graphic sex scene – and if it’s a blow-job, make it deep and penetrating.’ That was The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, but I could have been writing about Narcopolis. There is a blow-job in Book 3, in one of Rumi’s less hideous anecdotes about his life – and yes, it’s a good one. But it’s the violence, sometimes sexual, that is Thayil’s favourite way of demonstrating how irrevocably vicious life can become. I won’t go on about it, because there are other things in Book 3… but it’s hard to read about the murder perpetrated by Saleem, and his subsequent death at the hands of a corrupt police force, without feeling contaminated. And not in a good way.

We follow different threads, through different narrative voices. Sometimes it’s the omniscient narrator we’re used to by now, especially when it’s Dimple we’re following. Or it’s Rumi’s voice as he describes his exploits to whoever is, or isn’t, listening. Or, as we reach the last couple of chapters of Book 3, it’s the narrator who started all this off in the Prologue – and the one who’s been absent for so long he doesn’t recognise Dimple when he sees her again. I don’t know if Thayil has a serious purpose in mind, something to do with those often self-aggrandising versions of events I mentioned at the end of Book 2. We get a lot of Rumi’s story from his own lips, and he has a habit of turning terribly sordid-sounding episodes into almost heroic acts. (He isn’t beyond playing games with this: at the very end of Book 3 he presents the murder of a beggar-woman as an act of kindness.) And, in case we haven’t got it, we have a reprise of Rashid’s invented story of the purchase of Lee’s pipes: there are no reliable narrators in this lowest stratum of society. It can be a problem. Sometimes I wonder whether any part of Bombay was ever anything like this, and all I know is that I don’t know.

Except… I think it’s ok to believe what we hear about the different drugs that enter the city during the 80s and 90s. Heroin and coke we know about, then there’s ‘chemical’ – basically a poisonous mix, with strychnine being mentioned – and a new variant of heroin with a Hindi name meaning ‘waste’: it’s what is left over when the Europeans and Americans have taken the purified white stuff for themselves, and it’s brown. Then there are the ways to get the stuff into yourself. Instead of the faux-sophistication of the opium pipes of old – that is, of the previous decade or so – there’s injecting, obviously, spot-smoking from a small sliver of metal foil… and there’s what the German does. It’s injecting, but straight through his jeans into the thigh because he’s no chance of finding a vein. Well, that’s what he used to do. He’s dead now.

There’s a lot of death. I’ve mentioned a couple of murders, but the addicts routinely refer to non-addicts as already dead. This culminates at the end of the last chapter in Book 3 when Rumi says this to the former addict who is now his mentor in rehab. Except he’s not in rehab, because his is the ‘relapse’ of the chapter’s title. (His mentor’s response is… well, we don’t know exactly. But the chapter ends with him looking at Rumi and musing to himself how easy it would be to put an end to his pointless, horrifying life. We don’t know whether he actually does it.) Rumi’s mentor has been wondering aloud about the addict’s common declaration that to choose to be an addict is an assertion of free will. We’ve heard it before, and by this point the wretchedness of all of them is enough to refute this piece of self-deception for good.

Thayil is constantly adding other strands into these meditations on what it means to be alive. (I’m reminded of the sarcastic opening of Trainspotting – ‘Choose life’ – which is followed by a harrowing litany of the pointless existence of non-addicts.) One of the books that Dimple begins to read at random – it’s what she always does – is a bizarre guide to ‘aggressive reincarnation’. After death, how can you take your revenge on the living? The author has the answers – but Dimple decides the man is a fraud. Much later, when she’s also in rehab – her story alternates with Rumi’s in the last chapter – cold turkey brings her harrowing dreams of Lee trapped in underwater limbo because she never did return his ashes to China. He tells her that dying is only the first of several deaths, and… and what? It doesn’t help her much. Earlier, she had decided that the Christian God offers the best deal, and she finds the local church comforting. (You often seem to get a kind of trying out of various religious options in Indian novels, an approach taken more cynically by Balram in White Tiger.) One particular visit to the church segues into…

…a scene in which she is only saved during the Hindu/Muslim violence of the 1980s because she is wearing a ‘Christian’ dress as she finds herself in the middle of a mob. This also saves the life of Jamal, Rashid’s son, who is about to be beaten and possibly killed by the mob until he says something relating to her and is let go. This, of course, is only the latest of her disguises. It’s no wonder the first narrator doesn’t recognise her when he sees her – but then she has lost all her looks by the mid-1990s, and has a mucus-filled hole in her chin that doesn’t look good. It’s this narrator who takes her to rehab on his way out of the city and, in fact, she seems ready for a different sort of life. As Rumi wastes his mentor’s time, melting into the crowd on his way to an improving lecture, Dimple accepts the regime. The dreams are terrifying, but by the end of Book 3 she hasn’t given up. Will she find a better life after the horrors of her childhood and a lifetime of addiction?

Time to find out.

20 April
Book 4
Well, yes and no. Dimple and her better life, I mean. She’s done rehab, she’s been to hospital, and she’s seen the sky. As she looks up ecstatically she knows that she is ‘beloved’. It’s Rashid telling us this, in that ambiguous post-rehab state you get in this novel – the narrator tells us he’s lost not only all his weight, but all his charisma as well – and he’s giving us the story of Dimple’s death from what sounds like cancer but could be anything. Ah. But we should know by now that it doesn’t end there. It’s clear that the one who loves her, and misses her, is Rashid. After her death he hears her opening a door at night, or moving things around. And then, after he’s given up on trying to catch a glimpse of her, there she is. She tells him she isn’t a ghost haunting him, because she’s always there. So that’s all right.

Book 4 consists of three short chapters, and it feels like a coda. Our narrator is back, years after the events that come at the end of Book 3, and he’s gone on a sentimental journey to the site of Rashid’s canna. Jamal, Rashid’s son, is grown up now, and the building is now the hub of an online business. (Predictable? It’s not for me to comment.) Jamal tells the narrator – whose name we know by now, not that it matters – that Rashid won’t be available to see him. But then he is. Upstairs, in the rooms where he and his two wives used to live, he sits, a shell of his former self. And he brings us up to date. Dimple? We know about Dimple by the end of his story. Rumi? Dead, following (allegedly) a violent attack like the ones he used to perpetrate. Bombay? All the cannas are long gone, obviously… but Book 3 has already documented their decline and disappearance. There are new high-rise blocks to go with the city’s new name. And so on.

What’s the narrator to do? I said at the beginning that he was a framing device, and it’s time for him to close this now. He goes back to the room he’s renting, muses on what the neighbours must think about the strange one-sided conversations they must have been hearing all night…. Because he’s reached the end of the story he began in the Prologue. He’s been smoking opium, and everything he’s told us has come to him ‘from the pipe’. All those lives, all those encounters – he might not have known about them, but the stories, it seems were just waiting to be told. How did it go all those chapters back? ‘I can tell you that the I, the I you’re imagining at this moment… well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s….’

You got that? In this universe, the dead can speak and a pipe knows everything. And how neat can Thayil make it? His narrator tells us that the last word of the story will be the same as the first: Bombay.

It feels like somebody attempting to use a neat little knot to tie up an often unmanageable bundle of highly assorted stuff. All through the writing of this novel, Thayil seems to have been looking for ways to prevent his highly diverse stories from twisting out of his control. He has biographies, histories, and four or five different narrative threads going, so he creates parallels. Death? There are Dimple’s dreams of Lee’s after-life, that weird little book on reincarnation, Dimple’s own presence in Rashid’s house after her own death. Dreams themselves have their own life, and several characters comment on how they are sharing dreams with others. Sometimes the stories merge in other ways, as in the parallel downward trajectories, the shared clichés relating to choice and the meaning of free will, and Dimple’s sincere attempt at rehab presented side-by-side with Rumi’s cynical playing of the system.

Are we really being presented with a kind of collective consciousness? If so, it would share this feature with the best novel I’ve ever read about addiction, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. In that novel, several trajectories come together in a hallucinatory crescendo: three characters have come adrift from each other after a mescal-fuelled day of attempted reconciliation. For two of them, irretrievably separated but somehow presented as sharing the same experience, it ends very badly indeed: Lowry seems to have discovered 70 years before Thayil that where there’s addiction, death isn’t far behind. To make sure we get it, Lowry has all the events take place on the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Narcopolis isn’t in the same league, but the hallucinatory melting away of the boundaries between different people’s conscious (and unconscious) lives presents a sense of community that proves to be illusory. These people might think like one another, but they are all doomed to play out their own individual little tragedies. So whatever ambiguities remain at the end of this opium-fuelled narrative… remember, kids, don’t do drugs.

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