My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay. In Rashid's opium room the air is thick and potent. A beautiful young woman leans to hold a long-stemmed pipe over a flame, her hair falling across her dark eyes. Around her, men sprawl and mutter in the gloom, each one drifting with his own tide. Here, people say that you introduce only your worst enemy to opium.
Outside, stray dogs lope in packs. Street vendors hustle. Hookers call for custom through the bars of their cages as their pimps slouch in doorways in the half-light. There is an underworld whisper of a new terror: the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, whose victims are the nameless, invisible poor. There are too many of them to count in this broken city.
Narcopolis is a rich, chaotic, hallucinatory dream of a novel that captures the Bombay of the 1970s in all its compelling squalor. With a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, it is a journey into a sprawling underworld written in electric and utterly original prose.
When the first chapter was one seven-page sentence, I wasn't sure what I had gotten myself into, exactly. It turns out that was the perfect introduction to the drug-riddled world of this book. The writing was compelling, and I enjoyed the way the world was slowly explored, all centering around one opium den (and later, heroin den), following tangents of seemingly minor characters all leading back to the central place. I never knew where it would head next, and this style allowed for multiple perspectives of Rashid, who owned the place (through his landlord, son, everyone except his wives, which would have been interesting); and Dimple, the eunuch who prepares the pipes (through her older Chinese lover, among others).
The story starts out in the Bombay of the 1970s, and moves all the way up through 2004 with some of the characters. And I suppose if you count Mr. Lee's own story, it also includes the China of his childhood.
The poverty of the setting is well-described, with some commentary such as this:
"Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony. The rich crave meaning. .. 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." (39)
There is a direct connection between the drug culture and the poverty, made by one of the more unpleasant characters:
"How the fuck are you supposed to live here without drugs?" (211)
Some of the characters have incredible experiences together because of the opium, and there is a very memorable scene between Rashid and Dimple that includes the line:
"Dreams leak." (184)
One of the characters, after trading up the opium addiction for harder and more damaging drugs, ends up in rehab. She explains addiction in a different way:
"There are so many good reasons and nobody mentions them and the main thing nobody mentions is the comfort of it, how good it is to be a slave to something, the regularity and the habit of addiction, the fact that it's an antidote to loneliness, and the way it becomes your family, gives you mother love and protection and keeps you safe.... It isn't the heroin that we're addicted to, it's the drama of the life, the chaos of it, that's the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered - why would we choose anything else?" (229)
Another important element in the setting is the conflict between Muslim and Hindu, more importantly how it has an impact on business relationships. There are moments throughout the novel where violence traps the characters inside, although they don't really seem to mind.
A few other tidbits I liked:
This is a taxi driver who has been taking an opera singer around town. I think it gives a good example of the tone and the writing:
"...That's when she tells me to open the sunroof and she starts to sing, and all of the sudden I got it, you know? ... The function of opera, I understood that it was the true expression of grief. I understood why she needed to stand and turn her face up as if she was expressing her sadness to god, who was the author of it. And for a moment I understood what it was to be god, to take someone's life and ash it like a beedi. I thought of her life, her useful life, and I wanted to take it from her for no reason at all." (226)
I also think the author has a sense of humor about his characters, considering that the following quotation (and a much longer reflective passage on doubt and confidence) comes from a man who is in jail, filthy, and high (also possibly a murderer):
"Doubt is another word for self-hate, because if you doubt yourself and your position in the world you open yourself to failure." (232)
When I started writing this review, I had ranked the book at 4 stars, but honestly, I feel like this is well-crafted, I hadn't read anything like it, and I look forward to reading more of his work. It looks like he is otherwise known as a poet.
He is also guitarist, and I listened to STD by Sridhar/Thayil as I read the book.