October 22, 2012

Many of the book’s jokes play on evil and unfortunate differences between the quality of our lives. Oozing into Bombay’s general sense of menace is the covert activity of a figure called “€œthe Pather Maar,”€ who is described as a “€œstone killer.”€ 

The Pather Maar becomes a tabloid sensation, an urban legend whose truth we never discover, though, for all we know, he is one of Rashid’s customers named Rumi, who reveals to Dimple, the girl to whom everyone reveals all, that recently he has gotten a taste for casual killing. In Bombay, “€œeven the dead fight for real estate.”€ 

The Pather Maar may be a symbol of the city’s urban decline, a degradation caused by badly managed economics and the political disunity of the “€œGOVERNAMENT [sic] OF INDIA,”€ whose priceless spelling is printed on a jeep which just happens to be prowling Shuklaji when we first walk down the street of legend at the start of the novel and tells us so much about postcolonial India in only three words. Perhaps the stone killer is a personalization of the city’s actual death; it’s the way the narrator sees it, anyway. He believes Bombay is not only decaying but literally dying. Drug-induced paranoia or not, the city scares him. 

At the end of the novel he returns to his old haunt by approaching slowly and cautiously via train from Delhi. He can”€™t fly straight into Bombay, not straight into the frying pan. With poverty and addiction everywhere, death is ever attendant. A slow death punctuated by (historic) riots so violent even the opium khanas close their doors. Civic responsibility, not that there was much other than street justice, devolves into downright anarchy; and this is not about the drug addicts. They”€™re the well-behaved ones here, the fearful ones, now that the city’s straight citizens begin wreaking religious havoc on each other. 

Death is also an idée fixe of the lovable protagonist, Dimple. Her interest in death turns, after smoking too much Chemical, into a recurring nightmare, a hellish fantasy about the Chinaman who gave her the ancient opium pipes, now wandering in mortal limbo because she failed to bury him the way he asked her. Chemical will be the last drug the delicate eunuch takes, but I can”€™t tell you what happens to her. If she needed rescuing at the beginning of the novel, by the end she’s beyond rescue. What would be the point in rehabilitating someone such as Dimple in her later years, anyway? Having been a parasite of drugs and mercy all her life, giving up her parasitism…would leave her with what, exactly? 

Yet rescued she must be, because by the book’s end she’s in such a state that the narrator doesn”€™t recognize her until he has already passed several hours in a room with her, smoking heroin (she gets to smoke the butts) which has just passed through a Nigerian smuggler’s bowels. 

The narrator, who lived previously in Los Angeles working as a limo driver, notes that not ever”€”not even in Los Angeles, where a lot of weird shit happens”€”has he had “€œto wait in line for a nigger to shit.”€ This is said as an observation, not a criticism. A statement of amazement at the drug-supply problem, spoken as he takes his place behind two early arrived customers who are waiting for the laxatives to get the drug mule’s bowels to excavate. It’s hard to shit with an audience, the Nigerian tells them, once nine egg-sized plastic packages are finally assembled on the table, ready to smoke.


In an end chapter entitled “€œRehab, Relapse,”€ we meet a reformed drug addict named Soporo whom the inmates of the rehab are eager to hear lecture. He comports himself as something of a wise man. He is one of the few who made it out of the heroin hole and made peace with himself.

Soporo begins by asking, “€œAre addicts free? Are they in fact the freest of men?…The interesting thing is that we choose it, despite everything we choose it and continue to choose it.”€ Next, as Soporo explains during the lecture, there was once a film set in the near future. The myth he goes on to describe without naming it is the plot of the movie Bladerunner.

Soporo compares addicts to the movie’s “€œreplicants,”€ as Philip K. Dick named them. The replicants die one by one until only Rutger Hauer remains, famously shedding a tear.

Soporo paces the stage, the wise Japanese man, “€œand he repeated the words planned obsolescence.”€ Planned obsolescence, like “€œcompanies design products with a short shelf life, like the pretty computer I see,”€ he expands. And here it is that Soporo nails the paradox and reality of drug addiction. Planned obsolescence.


Dimple benefits for once from mercy when Rashid, the opium proprietor, takes a fancy to her strange brand of sexuality. He sets her up in a private, modest part of his opium-bought building. Being a Muslim, he already has several wives who bore him to death. He and Dimple, the ultimate outsider (her name and even her gender are false), become close, not least because of their lovemaking, which is performed anally. It feels to Dimple like a death-making now that the Chemical they smoke has taken its toll long-term. Dimple lacks a pain/pleasure barrier, so low is she in class society. Their sexual encounters are a grim, shuddering copulation that even scare her.

By the last third of the book we not only believe, we”€™re convinced by the author’s conceit of “€œBombay. City of Death.”€ Like a virus spreading on macro and micro levels, it’s something readers unconsciously fear will manifest itself grandiosely in the story. The author’s touch is so light yet so real, you come to believe his planetary conspiracy theory. But there is no mega-moment. Each character finds his fate and dies his own death, but it’s all connected.

The author appears early on in the novel, declaring himself not the narrator nor the subject”€”though he is in reality both”€”but an author describing another self, who happens to a protagonist in the narrative to follow. This distancing effect echoes the inter-worldly travel of the mind in an opium reverie as much as it infers his reluctance to return to the scene of his demise. The fact he reappears toward the end makes us comprehend that much of this may have been real, while this is no straightforward memoir. Technically it is a novel.

He’s drawn back to the city, back to Shuklaji Street, back to Rashid’s, to see whether anyone, let alone the old boss himself, survives. The only way he, the author, survived was by making a carefully planned escape, one that is delayed and almost canceled. He glosses over his own fugitive experiences as if they”€™re simply too painful to revisit. It’s an act of courage for him even to walk down Shuklaji Street. By now we forget we”€™re reading a book; he might as well be talking to us, confessing his fable face to face. 

In this way, the book is an original. It’s not one thing nor another; it’s a book that had to be written. If this is the author’s literary device, so be it; it doesn”€™t matter.

What differentiates Narcopolis from the other novels on the Booker list is that the stories do not seem to be pure fiction. Not these characters, whose fates ring so hard and tragic; it cannot be merely for effect. These stories simply can”€™t be made up. And this is what gives it the edge. If it is fabricated, Thayil has to be sick himself to plunder such hellish realms as a mere exercise. I can”€™t believe it. Either way, it’s brilliant.



Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!