|Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil
Narrated by Robertson Dean
(This is an edited version of a review I wrote for my retired blog. I’m republishing because it is timely with a documentary I’ll be reviewing on Saturday.)
In this opiate-veiled book, Thayil introduces readers to the seedy underbelly of Bombay. It begins in the 1970’s and transitions with surreality into modern-day Mumbai–which has lost not only its tradition and identity, but also it’s name. The story follows several memorable characters, all of whom fight addiction in one form or another. Addictions range from opiates to violence to sex.
The most memorable character is Dimple, a pipe-wallah, a prostitute, and an addict. Dimple was abandoned by her mother and sold into prostitution as a child. At the age of 9, she was castrated and her penis was removed, transforming her into India’s “third sex:” a hijra. Some men specifically prefer hijra over male or female prostitutes. When we are introduced to Dimple, she is a little older, and is suffering the ill effects of her surgery–including addiction to opium, which was originally given to her as a narcotic for her pain. The story follows Dimple as she transforms from a beautiful young woman to a sickly and shriveled middle-aged woman.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into the story (I think it would be clearer after a second reading), but I think Dimple was meant to represent India. When we met Dimple, she was young and beautiful, as was the young India. She had been docked and gelded, yes, but she was beautiful, intelligent, and had potential if ONLY she could get out of her rut. Perhaps this is meant to imply that the Westerners had “docked and gelded” India (by their colonization and then partitioning of the land), but that India still had potential. She was still beautiful. But time passed, and the slow-and-easy opium life in the “best opium den in Bombay…maybe even India,” was forcibly supplanted by frightening hallucinatory “cheap” chemical-laced heroin. During this time, Dimple became increasingly sick. Likewise, India itself was getting sicker from the negative influences of modernization. As time passed, Dimple’s name changed, as did Bombay’s, and their identities were lost in the harsh new world.
This book was allegorically very deep, and I’m sure that a second, third, and fourth reading would teach me something new every time. But, unfortunately, once was enough for me. I don’t regret reading the book…it will stay with me forever. But the violence, sex, drugs, and sickening human condition described was enough for me the first time around. Don’t get me wrong, all of these negative issues were handled with graceful tact. But it was still difficult for me to read.
Now, a note on the narration: I imagine this book was a very difficult one to read aloud. Robertson chose to represent surreal quality behind the veil with an airy tone of detachment. This tone was meaningful and perhaps necessary, but some might prefer to read the book instead. For me, Robertson’s tone of detachment didn’t distract from the story once I got used to it and understood the purpose. I was happily able to engross myself in the flow.