Books
11:25 am
Mon April 9, 2012

'Narcopolis': Inside India's Dark Underbelly

Originally published on Sun April 8, 2012 5:02 am

Author Jeet Thayil looks at today's Indian society and culture from an unusual perspective. He spent two decades of his life as an opium addict, immersed in the dark underbelly of Bombay — now known as Mumbai.

A celebrated poet and a journalist, Thayil has just published his first novel, Narcopolis. The novel begins in the 1970s, with its narrator mesmerized with a grimy opium den. Readers are introduced to a desperate set of characters — including an opium dealer named Rashid and one of his clients Dimple, a eunuch and prostitute who grew up in a brothel. As time passes, Thayil reveals how all of Bombay is transformed by the brutal underworld culture.

Thayil explains that he struggles to reconcile the Bombay of his painful past with the booming city it has become. "Anybody who knew Bombay in those years, there's no way you cannot [not] feel nostalgia for that city because it was a beautiful, laid back, liberated, liberal place," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And these are all things that are impossible to find in the Bombay of today."


Interview Highlights

On eschewing stereotypes

"I try to avoid sentimentality and I try to avoid the easy cliche. I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons. The problem with those books about India which paint Indian society in soft focuses [is that] I find it very difficult to recognize the country I know in those books."

On the twin-ship of freedom and slavery

"Every character in this book is an addict of some sort — addicted to drugs or to violence or to religion or to sex. And as the Dimple character says later, after her transformation, she says, it's possible the addict is actually the freest of men because everybody knows what addiction does, how it can destroy your life. And to know those things and to continue to do it is actually an example of free will at its strongest."

On the perceptions of addiction in society

"With opiates, when you're addicted, your day is pretty much taken care of. There's no question of boredom. There's no question of existential anxiety. You know exactly what you're there for, what you have to do. It's a question of getting money and then buying what you need to buy and then doing it. It's a full-time job and, yes, you are a slave to that substance and you need it every day. Within that, I can only call it freedom because under that umbrella you are absolutely free to do whatever you may want to or to think whatever you may want to. I don't mean to be an apologist for heroin addicts, and I'm not trying to glamorize it in any way, but I would just like to offer this as kind of a counterpoint to the prevailing idea of addiction."

On Rashid the character and the real Rashid

"There was a place and it was run by a man named Rashid, and it was a famous opium den in the late '70s and early '80s. I'm sure there are people in the world who still remember Rashid. With this book I wanted it to be a kind of memorial for people who are gone and who never had the chance of having their lives recorded in any meaningful way, and there are portraits of people in the book, people I knew who are no longer around, and it was a way of paying back a debt maybe.

"He also gave me a glimpse of a life I would never have been able to see otherwise. Yes, I know that the drug dealer in our mind is a very negative, horrifying character but that wasn't the case at least with Rashid."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The author Jeet Thayil understands the changes in today's Indian from an unusual perspective. He spent two decades as an opium addict, embroiled in the dark underside of Bombay, now known as Mumbai, though Thayil still calls the city by its former name. His experiences have already brought him acclaim as a poet and a journalist. Now, he's published his first. Its called "Narcopolis," and he describes it as a secret history of Bombay.

JEET THAYIL: Told by the pimps, the prostitutes, the painters, and the petty criminals and poets who inhabit a certain underbelly of the city.

MARTIN: "Narcropolis" begins in the late 1970s in an opium den that brings together a complicated and troubled set of characters, including an opium dealer named Rashid and a prostitute named Dimple.

Thayil spoke with us recently from his home in Delhi, and told us fans of popular Indian fiction who pick up his new novel may want to brace themselves for a surprise.

THAYIL: There's nothing soft focus in this book. I try to avoid sentimentality and I try to avoid the easy cliche. And I try to avoid any mention of mangoes and spices and monsoons.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THAYIL: But the problem with those books about India which paint Indian society in soft focuses is I find it very difficult to recognize the country I know in those books.

MARTIN: There is a strain of this narrative that is about the juxtaposition of freedom and slavery. Is that a theme that you knew going in that you wanted to explore, or did it just emerge?

THAYIL: Actually, it did emerge but there was no way it couldn't have because every character in this book is an addict of some sort; addicted to drugs or to violence or to religion or to sex. And as the Dimple character says later, after her transformation, she says: It's possible the addict is actually the freest of men because everybody knows what addiction does, how it can destroy your life. And to know those things and to still continue to do it is actually an example of free will at its strongest.

MARTIN: It's very provocative, this idea that an addiction lies real freedom. That's antithetical to how most of us would view addiction. Can you talk a little bit more about that from your personal experience? I mean this is a work of fiction but this was real for you in a chapter of your life, this world.

THAYIL: Yeah, in fact more than one chapter, several chapters. With opiates, when you're addicted, your day is pretty much taken care of. There's no question of boredom, there's no question of existential anxiety. You know exactly what you're there for, what you have to do. It's a question of getting money and then buying what you need to buy and then doing it. And it's a full-time job. And, yes, you are a slave to that substance and you need it every day. Within that, it's - I can only call it freedom. Because under that umbrella you are absolutely free to do whatever you may want to or to think whatever you may want to. And I don't mean to be an apologist for heroin. I'm not trying to glamorize it in any way, but I would just like to offer this as a kind of a counterpoint to the prevailing idea of addiction.

MARTIN: You serve as the narrator in this story. And as we mentioned, its focal point is this opium den run by this man Rashid. Was there a person like Rashid in your life? Was there one place like this in your life?

THAYIL: Actually, there was a place and it was run by a man called Rashid and it was a famous opium den in the late '70s and early '80s. I'm sure there are people in the world who still remember Rashid. With this book, I wanted it to be a kind of a memorial for people who are gone and who never had the chance of having their lives recorded in any meaningful way. And there are portraits of people in this book, people I knew, who are no longer around. And it was a way of paying back a debt maybe.

MARTIN: A debt for what? This was your opium dealer, your heroin dealer.

THAYIL: The opium dealer, yes, but he also gave me a glimpse into a life that I would never have been able to see otherwise. And he was, you know, yes, I know that the drug dealer in our minds is a very negative, horrifying character, but that wasn't the case, at least with Rashid.

MARTIN: Just in talking to you, Jeet, it does seem though that there is still this tension within you, this attempt to reconcile these, what you describe as, wasted years of your life. But at the same time, there seems to be some kind of nostalgia for this world.

THAYIL: Yeah, you're absolutely right, there is. If you go back to Bombay now, anybody who knew this city when it was Bombay and not the city, not the M-word that I would rather not use, if it's OK with you. Anybody who knew Bombay in those years, there is no way that you cannot feel a nostalgia for that city because it was a beautiful, laid back, liberated, liberal place. And these are all things that are impossible to find in the Bombay of today because that city's current management, they are into divisiveness. They are into identifying people by their community, by whether they belong to the Hindu faith or the Muslim faith, and to then treat them accordingly. And there's no way you can have the kind of conversations that you had in Bombay at one time today, without worrying for your safety. And I think it's a terrible, terrible way for the city to have unraveled.

MARTIN: Jeet Thayil is a poet, journalist and author of the new novel, "Narcopolis." He joined us from Delhi. Jeet, thanks so much for talking with us. We really appreciate it.

THAYIL: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.