The first reviews of Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s novel set in the opium dens of Mumbai, were not flattering. One Indian reviewer pronounced it the worst novel ever written in the English language. The prestigious magazine Outlook devoted the tersest of paragraphs to the book, which it dismissed as “sleaze” and an “Orientalist’s wet dream”.
It was only when Thayil’s debut novel was longlisted, then shortlisted, for this year’s Man Booker Prize that reviews in his home country turned favourable. (The book eventually lost out to Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies.) Indians, 53-year-old Thayil concludes, still need reassurance from elsewhere about what to appreciate in their own culture. “I hope one day there’ll be some kind of confidence in ourselves,” he said during a recent visit to Hong Kong’s Literary Festival.
Narcopolis is not sleazy. Its language has a languorous, poetic beauty. There is plenty of the rough-and-ready street slang, delivered in the mixture of languages that flow on the streets of Bombay (Thayil refuses to use the name Mumbai, for reasons I shall come to). Yet the book somehow manages to rescue literary virtue from even the coarsest of language. The first seven pages are written in a single, snaking sentence (without so much as a semicolon, Thayil points out), mimicking the dreamy experience of smoking opium.
The protagonists inhabit a squalid environment of drugs, brothels, thuggery, sexual violence and poverty. Thayil’s achievement is to conjure from this world something humane and, like the marginalised characters of Dickens or Dostoevsky, to make us care. “There’s brutality but also beauty, I hope,” he says.
That applies above all to Dimple, the central character of the book, a hijra or “female eunuch” sold into transgender prostitution and castrated as a young boy. “She’s based on somebody I saw two or three times in a den on Shuklaji Street,” he says, referring to a street once lined with opium dens. “Then she disappeared, as people in that world often did. I remember watching her as she made the pipes. She was absolutely self-possessed, quiet, elegant, attractive and very polite. I only spoke to her maybe once, but she always stayed in my head.”
Even more central to the novel than Dimple is Bombay itself. Thayil rejects “Mumbai”, which he calls the “M-word”. The new name, he says, was forced on the city by Shiv Sena, the rightwing Hindu nationalist party. For Thayil, that change in the mid-1990s symbolised a loss of tolerance. “It’s always been a place where you find Hindus, Muslims, Christians, including Catholics from Goa and Protestants from south India, many Parsis and Buddhists. You can find Buddhist temples all over Bombay, including Japanese Buddhism,” he says. “That is the great Bombay tradition: tolerance and open-mindedness. If you had talent, ambition, money, beauty – that’s where you went. It was a magnet.”
The rise of militant Hinduism changed all that, he says. In the 1970s, an effort was made to turn opinion against south Indians. When that didn’t work, Muslims became the chosen object of mistrust. “They clicked that switch on,” he says about prejudices, previously contained, within the city’s kaleidoscopic community. In 1992 and 1993 anti-Muslim riots erupted in which 900 people died. They were followed by retaliatory bombings, allegedly with gangland support.
Thayil says Mumbai’s loss of forbearance reflects a nationwide trend. His father once told him about a street in Kerala, the southern Indian state where Thayil was born, that is supposedly the loudest in the state. It has a temple, a mosque and a church in close proximity, each blasting its message through loudspeakers, each trying to drown out the other. If the religious gap has widened, so has the wealth divide. “The rich have become inconceivably richer and the middle class have become richer too. But the poor are the great majority and they have not become richer by any means. And the minute you step out of the cities, nothing has changed in 300 years in those villages.” The term “India Shining”, once used to describe an India that was supposedly rattling towards prosperity, was nothing but an advertising slogan dreamt up by a Bombay advertising agency, he says.
Narcopolis, set in the 1970s and 1980s when Bombay was Bombay, has a nostalgic feel. In the opium dens, at least those of Thayil’s imagination, people from different communities got along. “It was a slow, romantic, beautiful world,” he says of those who gathered to smoke from 500-year-old Chinese opium pipes smuggled out during the cultural revolution. Not that he shies away from depicting the violence that he says is endemic to Indian cities. “We’re supposed to be this peaceful, non-violent, vegetarian race. Are you kidding me?” he says. “You live with the knowledge that life and death are entirely random occurrences. The kind of traffic accidents you see – a guy lying by the side of the road, with nobody stopping. The only way to live in some Indian cities, and especially Bombay, is to have a strategy to deal with the horror you see every day.”
Yet Narcopolis manages to be a love letter to Bombay. “I arrive. I get off the plane and I know I am in one of the great cities of the world,” he says. “It’s a hell of a life … and addictive too. You live there for a while and you get hooked.”
In Thayil’s case, getting hooked in what he calls “The City of O” was more than a metaphor. As a 16-year-old boy, he was dispatched to Bombay from Hong Kong where the family had been living. Thayil had run into trouble at school, as well as with the police, over drugs, and his parents sent him back to India to straighten him out. Little did they know that the place they had found for him to live was within a 15-minute walk of Shuklaji Street, home to the city’s notorious opium dens.
Thayil lost 20 years to addiction. After five years living in Bombay the opium dens were closed and gangs started pushing even harder drugs. “All the people who had been living fairly healthy lives smoking opium switched to heroin. It was deadly. Very soon, they were dying.” Thayil managed to stay alive, holding down a steady job as a journalist, both in India and New York. But his writing ambitions were lost in an opiate fog. “I feel it was 20 wasted years. I did no real work.”
Only when he finally kicked the habit a decade ago did he begin to work seriously as an author. He has since written and edited several books of poetry and produced a libretto for an opera, Babur, about the ghost of India’s first Mughal emperor wandering modern-day Britain. Narcopolis took many years to write. While poetry came to him in a flash, struggling through prose was a joyless slog, locked in a room from nine to five.
Now living in Delhi, he is close to completing a second novel in which one of the characters who fleetingly appears in Narcopolis takes centre stage. The new novel has nothing to do with drugs or Shuklaji Street. That part of Thayil’s life is over. Still, he harks back to those times. “When I think of the opium days I am filled with nostalgia,” he says. “Opium fills a hole, perhaps a God-shaped hole. And I have to say, I do miss it.”
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor. ‘Narcopolis’ is published by Faber and Faber