SHE'S RIGHT, Xavier said. Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in the fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don't ask questions, or they don't ask irrelevant questions. They can't afford to. All they can afford is laughter and ghosts. Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender. An addict, if you don't mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint, but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world's traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan's slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he's hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Dimple said, "I need a translator to understand you." (Ch. 3)
Cities are comprised of layers upon layers of people. For many of us who are native to a particular city, it is all too easy to wander through its labyrinths and think we know it. Yet there are those places that many of us know to avoid. What resides there in the metaphorical bowels of the metropolis? Is it danger? Or is it something else that disturbs us so? "The seedy underbelly" we often call such locales. We presume to understand, usually without giving a voice to our thoughts, just what "it" is that resides there. To question this would be foolhardy; how could we ever hope to understand?
Yet there is a vibrant life that exists within those layers of city life that so many of us dismiss without a second (or sometimes, a first) thought. There, one can find perhaps that hooker with a heart of gold, or maybe it is better to say a soul who is in search of a life raft. Or maybe one can encounter that most unnerving of souls, an addict. In some regards, an addict is an "other" who exists beyond race, class, gender, or caste: s/he is viewed frequently with a sort of horrified wonderment. What makes someone an addict? What tales can they tale beyond the clichéd story of redemption from the depths of despair? Does one ever choose to be an addict, knowing what it entails?
These are the existential questions that Indian writer Jeet Thayil explores in his debut novel, Narcopolis. Set in late 20th century Bombay (before its name changed to Mumbai), Narcopolis revolves around the "dead city" of the denizens of Rashid's opium den. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, Thayil explores the lives, dreams, and fears of several addicts in order to get closer to the heart of addiction itself. Narcopolis is neither a tale of survival nor a Bildungsroman. Its characters may strive to better their lives (one such example being the hijra Dimple), but the main focus is on narrating the possibilities of addiction itself.
It is too easy for a writer, whether or not s/he is writing from personal experience, to slip off the razor's edge into either a maudlin tale or a condemnatory fable. Addicts are not simple constructions; they are a host of possibilities within a single human body. Thayil's own past with heroin during his time living in New York and Bombay/Mumbai perhaps helps him avoid the potential pitfalls, but what really stands out is how he utilizes a rapid, almost breathless narrative that switches limited third-person PoVs frequently to create this sense of communal experience. Whether it is the main narrator, the hijra Dimple, or a couple other of the opium den's regulars, Thayil's narrative feels vital, alive, and fully aware of the contradictions present within its characters. He rarely strikes a wrong note, whether in character voice or in the prose itself, and much is packed into its 284 e-book pages.
Too easily a reader may find herself trying to focus on the "exotic" qualities of urban life different from what s/he has experienced. Thayil manages to avoid this through acknowledging the existence of poverty-stricken slums, but without that sort of "poverty porn" that titillates at the expense of a larger human narrative. Rashid and his customers are not window dressing for others to gawk at: they are humans whose concerns, while perhaps somewhat foreign to those alien to contemporary Indian urban societies, are real and intriguing because they are valued much higher than the setting around which their lives unfold. Narcopolis in many regards reminds me favorably of Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez's excellent Dirty Havana Trilogy in its unflinching dedication to narrating the lives and experiences of those too often dismissed by their own fellow citizens.
Thayil's prose is sharp and eloquent without feeling affected. Perhaps due to his experiences as a poet, Thayil can sum up complexity of emotion in just a few well-placed paragraphs, such as this excerpt from a reflection from a Chinese ex-soldier, Lee, in regards to his mother:
She didn't believe in culture. She didn't believe in books. She didn't believe in knowledge that die not benefit society as a whole. She believed that indiscriminate individual reading was detrimental to progress because it filled the populace with yearnings that were impossible to identify, much less satisfy. Societies with the highest literacy rates also had the highest suicide rates, she said. Some kinds of knowledge were not meant to be freely available, she said, because all men and women were not equipped to receive such knowledge in an equal and equally useful way. She did not believe in art for art's sake; she did not believe in freedom of expression; she did not believe in her husband, whose stature as a novelist she regarded with suspicion mixed with shame. Despite her lifelong aversion to culture she would go to university because she wanted to be a teacher. Teaching was the noblest profession in the world, she said. It was selfless, revolutionary, and critical to the nation's well-being. It concerned itself not with money, which was irredeemably dirty, but with the future of the mind. (Book Two, Ch. 2)Yes, there is contradiction here between the love of learning and the dismissal of knowledge. Yet we are full of such inconsistencies. Thayil's characters, whether they are reminiscing under the haze of opium or are lucid dreaming, contain such conflicts within themselves. We might find ourselves empathizing with them, feeling similar regrets and dreams. It is here, in that sympathetic bond that the reader may form with these characters, that Thayil's narrative is its most effective. Few readers may have experienced the pangs of chemical addiction, but most of us have known at some point that tug-of-war between emotional states and our desire to free ourselves from the restraints placed upon us by society. Some times, it seems the freest people are those who realize this and choose to take a path that may liberate themselves at the expense of their own selves. Narcopolis is a brilliantly-realized novel because it takes that unsettling concept and plays it out in front of the reader, allowing that reader to make his or her own conclusions about it. Very few novelists could have written such a tale and to see a debut novelist accomplish this is all the more marvelous. Certainly a very deserving candidate for this year's Booker Prize.