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Long Rooms Of Sex & Nasha

Jeet Thayil’s 'Narcopolis' is powered by its vivid, fleshy depiction of the addled, indigent drug underworld of Mumbai. Palash Krishna Mehrotra has reservations, but is ultimately entranced by this utterly original novel.


Jeet Thayil at home | Photo: Shiv Ahuja

arcopolis is set in the Bombay of the seventies and eighties, the age of Amitabh and Zeenie Baby and Ambassador cars. The narrator remains unnamed till the last page — all we're told is that he works as a proof reader for a pharmaceutical company's in-house newsletter; the action takes place in the 'city's fleshiest parts', roughly the area between Grant Road and Bombay Central, in 'the long rooms of sex and nasha'.

Rashid runs an opium den on Shuklaji Street. He is an addict himself, having 'exchanged one habit for another', he's 'given up God and accepted O.' He has a flunkey, Bengali, who'd once been a clerk and speaks English in an affected British accent. There's also Dimple/Zeenat, the eunuch-whore, Rashid's mistress and opium companion. She cooks the opium, cleans and fills the pipes for customers, a craft she first learned from Lee, an old Chinese man who runs a hush-hush den himself.

A colourful cast of characters frequent the den. Salim sells Scotch and cocaine for a Lala. Grateful for the job, he lets the Lala sodomise him. Rashid buys his whisky and coke from him. Rumi wears Pink Floyd tees and is married to a rich Gujarati who is always on the phone or watching television. He works in her family business, and hates it. He also harbours a dark secret. The painter, Newton Xavier (a thinly disguised F.N. Souza), 'whose epic binges were likened to...illustrious predecessors like Dylan Thomas, Verlaine and J. Swaminathan', makes a guest appearance at the den, as does Khalid, a mafia don's agent, who wants Rashid to switch his business from opium to the new drug in town, garad or smack.

Thayil, a well-known poet, deploys his powers of description with some success. He is excellent when nailing druggy nihilism: 'You've got to face facts and the fact is that life is a joke, a fucking bad joke, or, no, a bad fucking joke.'; or the point at which pain recedes into the dark night and one is high, simply high: 'I am unplugged from the tick of metabolism; I am mineral.' Both smack and opium produce dream-like states in the user, and Thayil describes these abstractions with great felicity: 'Dreams leak from head to head; they travel between those who travel in the same direction, that is to say lovers, and those who share the bonds of intoxication and death.'

It remains a brilliant first novel. Written in prose that can be lyrical and elliptical one minute, gritty and hard-hitting the next, Narcopolis is a grim yet vital record of drug addiction and the moral ambiguity it engenders.

There are graphic passages of sex and violence: '"In the a**," she told him. "F*** me in the a**."  Then she straddled him and guided him into her and played with her c*** while she rode him.' Salim explodes with pent-up rage one day and slices off the Lala's penis: 'At first there was no blood, just shreds of red and white meat, and then a fountain spilled to the floor.' At times, the twin strands of sex and violence meld together, as when Rumi has sex with a housewife-whore in his car: '...he hit her in the mouth, drawing blood, and the sight of it pushed him over and he came again.' We learn about where drugs from: 'Garad comes from Pakistan. Garad, you know what it means in Urdu? Waste. This is the unrefined s**t they throw away when they make good-quality maal for junkies in rich countries.'

So much for the good bits. I also had some reservations, a few bones to pick with this novel. First, several characters seem alarmingly well read. The drug-dealing Lala who sodomises Salim, quotes from the Baburnama. Dimple, the illiterate eunuch-whore, who has taught herself English by conversing with customers, reads the European classics; by the end of the book she's spouting the ideas of Burroughs, Baudelaire, Cocteau and de Quincey. Bengali has strong and articulate opinions about Tagore. This really must be the most literate lowlife in literature. Could Thayil be guilty of projecting his own favourite authors and opinions onto his characters?

Second, the Rushdie-like linguistic playfulness, the Hinglish floating on the surface — the patrakaars and the pocketmaars; the play on Satan/Shaitan/shat on — seems outmoded and quaint. Too many Indian writers have done it before; there's little novelty value left to it.

Third, the China bit seemed superfluous. The second part of the novel, consisting of nine chapters, is dedicated to Lee's back-story. It gets in the way of the narrative. One itches to get back to the opium den in Bombay. Thayil's China has elements of caricature in it. It's a China of Chairman Mao; the Communist Party; rice, opium and green dragons; men who like narrow, slender feet. One wonders what a Chinese writer would have done if he'd tried to imagine India. Let me make a guess: replace Mao with Gandhi; the Party with 'the world's largest democracy'; rice with chapatti; opium with bhang; slender feet with heaving bosoms; and green dragons with snakes.Image 2nd

Four, Thayil is intent on seeing most of his characters to the grave. I would have preferred it if he'd explored the seventies and eighties further and stopped there. As it happens, he fast-forwards the story twenty years to 2004. He isn't satisfied with exploring the lost world of opium dens; he also wants to tell the story of Bombay changing. There are token references to McDonald's and call centres. Things move too quickly towards the end of the book, the action compressed into a few sentences. This is at odds with the languidness that marks much of the preceding narrative. Salim, for example, kills the Lala and walks away, four months pass by, he is arrested for a robbery he didn't commit, is interrogated, confesses to murdering the Lala, commits suicide, (we're given a hint: it's not a suicide but a custodial death). The cops celebrate his death at Topaz that night. All this action takes place in the space of one small paragraph.

inally, when the narrator returns to Bombay after several years, he bumps into an old friend from the den, Spiderman, a beggar, on a street corner. In another twist, Rumi, who smashes the heads of pavement dwellers, has his own head smashed in one night. All this poignant coincidence and divine justice might have been okay in a movie but in a powerful book like this, these moments appear a touch tacky and unnecessary.

Still, this is not a bad book. Far from it, in fact. For most parts, it remains a brilliant first novel. There is a moment when Dimple is disturbed when she sees Xavier's paintings in a magazine. The narrator says this was 'a pure reaction, maybe the most gratifying reaction an artist could expect.' There is plenty to disturb in this novel too. Written in prose that can be lyrical and elliptical one minute, gritty and hard-hitting the next, Narcopolis is a grim yet vital record of drug addiction and the moral ambiguity it engenders. It provides us with a rare glimpse into the inner life of the addict, as well as the seamy underbelly of the city in which she dwells. Nothing like this exists in Indian literature of any language.

(The writer is the author of Eunuch Park. His new book The Butterfly Generation is published later this month)

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