Opium-tinted Bombay

Opium-tinted Bombay

Jeet Thayil
Faber and Faber
2011, pp 292

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is an opium-induced experience where dreams merge with reality. It is a Bombay that we don’t get to see in the many portrayals of the city in literature, cinema and mainstream media.

A journey into the underbelly of the city from the eighties, through the nineties and into the present, the book is about a Bombay of the hijras, opium dens (chandu khanas), the raddi shops and the brothels of Shuklaji street. The protagonist is Dom Ullis, and it is through his opium-induced episodes that we get to see Thayil’s Bombay.

Dom has just begun work at a pharmaceutical company where he has to proofread the inhouse newsletter and it is his job that puts him in “lovely proximity” to drugs. There is Dimple, the hijra-prostitute who works at the chandu khana after she decides to leave the brothel run by a tai, and where she comes in touch with Dom, Rumi and other frequenters to the opium den.

It is a certain Lee, a refugee from China who lives nearby, who introduces Dimple to the world of opium. It is, at first, a way to forget the pain that is always there in her shoulders and her back. Slowly, Lee teaches her the correct way of making the pyaali or the pipe, because he knows he won’t live too long.

It is during such sessions that Dimple learns all about Lee and his life in Maoist China. Thayil’s Narcopolis is in that sense a book of the marginalised, the ‘other’ that we don’t see: the refugee, the hijra, the prostitute, the opium dealer, the maverick artist, the outsider. But when you are reading pages and pages dedicated to Lee and his experiences in China, one longs to get back to the story of Bombay, to Shuklaji Street, where Rashid sits in his khana.

It is Rashid who makes place for Dimple at his khana after Lee’s death and also
allows her to live in a room in his building. Dimple becomes Rashid’s Zeenie (Zeenat). He is a huge fan of Hare Krishna, Hare Ram (no prizes for guessing why) and his favourite song is Dum Maro Dum. A little too contrived?

Thayil also plays with words a bit... “A Spaniard at the khana called the actress Zeenat A Man — he had to explain the joke — because he said there was something drag-queen glamorous about her.” Like solving a cryptic crossword puzzle. Something that Salman Rushdie uses a lot as well.

Thayil’s prose is a treat, especially his description of the street. Shuklaji Street “was a fever grid of rooms.” “In the midst of it, Rashid’s opium room was becoming a local landmark....Best quality O. He was getting opium tourists who had heard about the khana from a friend on a beach somewhere in Spain or a cafe in Rome...” There is poetry when Thayil writes, “ With the dreams came memories, or perhaps they weren’t memories at all but fantasies she imagined were memories.” Eventually, Dimple lands up at a rehab centre, the old-timers go their separate ways, even as the author offers us hints of the socio-cultural and political changes Bombay goes through over the years.

Dom returns to Bombay, as he must, and goes back to Shuklaji Street, where everything has changed. It’s Rashid's son, Jamal, who now runs a call centre where once stood Rashid’s khana. The street itself has changed. There is even a gleaming McDonalds. The world of the chandu khanas is now dead. Today, it is about snorting coke. Dimple is dead, Rumi too (smashed on the head with a concrete pipe; is Rumi the pathar maar, who smashed people on the heads with stones?)  And yet, among all the characters, it is only lonely old Rashid for whom one feels. A man whose world has changed irrevocably. The brave new world of Jamal, his son, is here.

Thayil’s debut novel is intense; the prose is lyrical sometimes, replete with the language used by the ‘other’, and disturbing at other times. The magic realism of Rushdie is here, but, this is a stronger, more intoxicating read than say, Midnight’s Children.