Sunday, September 30, 2012

A day-dream of iniquity

I remember reading some time ago about how watching scenes of people partaking in drugs on a screen, with all the attendant rituals, can trigger withdrawal symptoms in drug-addicts even though they have been off drugs for a while. Reading Jeet Thayil's, 'Narcopolis' it seems easy to imagine a similar psychosomatic eruption in long-reformed opium smokers from a by-gone era when immersing themselves in the lush landscape of the writer's Bombay - in a meditation on a time and place in history that I'm sure very few historians will have revisited, if only for the devilish complexities inherent in its ethos that seem so resistant to a neat and diaphanous compartmentalization that inexorably leads to contemporary narratives of the modern world.

It goes without saying that the credentials of the writer are sound, his telling of the tale, stylish, and his character-portrayals, convincing in the extreme, and not only because the sum of his characters' individual quirks all put together, make them seem more human than your next door neighbour. It took Thayil years to write this book while being involved in other artistic pursuits, and all the hours revisiting those parts of his youth that he draws on must have been ponderously painful for him and, on contemplation, reminded me most vividly of Bill Murray's character's attempt in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (2005), plodding through the ghosts of past love-lives, to discover if he really has a son.
I don't know if it just seems this way to me or whether it's really true that we are witnessing an extraordinary cross-cultural re-examination of collective humanity's past interaction with opium, through important tales that seem to have been hitherto lost somewhere in colonialism's hidden harems that are only now being shown the light of day, inducing in the reader an eerie reflection of modernity's greatest anxieties by resurrecting the iniquitous circumstances in the lives of our ancestors. Over the past year, Amitav Ghosh's trilogy that began with, 'Sea of Poppies' and continued to, 'River of Smoke', forced a re-examination of a heavy page from history that was apropos conveniently forgotten in contemporary criticisms of the rise of China in the present. A recent book from a serious collector of opium paraphernalia tells us that it is easier to source original items from private collections in the Western world than it is to buy and trade them in the bazaars of the East. But for all the lauded mystique behind that most oriental of pursuits, 'Narcopolis' is more than just a recounting of Bombay's transition from an opium-induced melting-pot of cultural oddities to a hyper-city of fast passions and faster comeuppances, through the eyes of colourful characters steeped primarily in the drug trade.
I hadn't read anything close to what amounts to a fully realized eunuch character taking centre-stage as we observe the self-immolation of an entire culture at the altar of economics, until 'Narcopolis'. I didn't know anything about the uprising in Wuhan until I read its fascinating impact on the life of one of the main characters in the book. I didn't know about the genesis of garad heroin and its fatal repercussions on a whole way of life for many of old Bombay's residents, until 'Narcopolis'. And I definitely hadn't read a story told with so much angst about the disappearance of a romantic ideal of base escapism that shrouds every character in its enveloping haze, until 'Narcopolis'.

Jeet Thayil once responded to a newspaper interviewer's question about what he was trying to say with his novel with a blunt denunciation of the efficacy of questioning the motives behind anything produced as art. In another interview he said that a friend of his once remarked that the book exists in a genre all its own.
I doff my long-disappeared pipe to him, from one survivor of iniquity to another, for the great gift to the rest of us still standing that is Narcopolis.


  1. My name is Rishi Vohra and I am the author of a debut fiction, 'Once Upon the Tracks of Mumbai,' recently released in bookstores. For more information on the book, please visit

    I was wondering if you would be interested in reviewing the book on your blog.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Warm regards,


    1. Hi Rishi,

      I will be happy to review your book. Please mail me at with the details.

      Warm Regards