faber & Faber
Rs 499 pp 292
Imagine an opium addict nodding through decades, indulging his habit in a somewhat surreal place in the company of somewhat surreal people. Imagine that he is very observant and sensitive to atmosphere. But his is a fractured consciousness that strobes in and out of alternate realities. Imagine a gift with words and the desire to recuse himself from his own narrative.
The place is Suklaji Street at the heart of Bombays red-light district. The narrative starts in the 1980s when Dom Ullis, a Syrian Christian, smokes his first chandu (opium pipe) at Rashids khana. The hijda, Dimple aka Zeenat, prepares the pyali (the bowl that contains opium) and holds the pipe.
She takes over the narrative with the help of sundry characters such as Rashid himself, her mentor Mr Lee, a psychotic smoker called Rumi. There are walk-on-roles for many others; Salim the pocketmaar, a retired clerk Bengali who manages Rashids cashbox, the famous painter Xavier, Rashids son Jamal.
Theres also opium in its many avatars along with a random sampling of other narcotic and psychotropic substances. In fact, opium is the central character and addiction is the theme that binds everything together.
This is life sliced from the seamy genitals of Bombay, at a time when the city rocked and revelled in its squalor. The streets are lined with crumbling old houses, housing multitudes packed into tiny, subdivided rooms. The ecology of Suklaji Street, Falkland Road, Foras Road, Kamathipura catered 24x7 for all appetites and every pocket.
There were the upper-class whorehouses where seths threw garlands of notes at mujrawaalis. Their drivers patronised the cages, where the sluts lifted their sarees and offered discounted affection at a fiver a fuck. There were the speciality establishments with hijdas and trannies. Dotted in between, there were the opium khanas, the charas dealers, the panwaalahs with bed-breaking aphrodisiacs and the restaurants where awesome cuisine came garnished in terrible hygiene.
The area has noticeably gentrified now. The khanas have shut down, the whorehouses have gone glitzy. Drugs are scored in MacDonalds and Cafe Coffee Day. Nobody smokes opium anymore. They chase (or shoot) opiate derivatives like garad (low-grade brown sugar), or high-grade heroin when they can get it. They snort snow-white coke and pop Ecstasy.
The evolution of the Narcopolis over three decades is set down in glittering prose that stays pitch-perfect, just on the right side of overblown. In the mid-80s, Bombay was terrorised by the stoneman, a serial killer who smashed the heads of pavement dwellers. In the 90s, it was plagued by riots. Those events are peripheral, yet central, to the conjoined narratives of Dimple-Zeenat, Rumi, Rashid and Jamal.
More or less everybody in Narcopolis is an addict. Everybody has a story, except the narrator. Dom is a camera. He rarely participates. Instead he watches, listens and smokes. When hes stoned, he babbles in English and talks books with Dimple. Most of the time, Dom isnt present in spirit. He leaves Bombay, returns, leaves again. People tell him their stories, he records those. Perhaps he is unwilling to focus the laser of his perception upon himself.
Addicts beyond number have written memoirs of varying quality. What distinguishes this is the control. It takes a wicked amount of craft to convey the addictive mindset, without ever descending into incoherence. Dom looks through the lens of an addict withal, a rational addict, with little affect.
Some opium addicts can spend a pleasant hour or day, contemplating their shoelaces. Instead Dom spends three decades looking at Bombay in all its lush squalor. He melds the puke, the violence, the tawdry glamour, and the terrible beauty of the Narcopolis together and transmutes it into what smells like instant cult classic.
Devangshu Datta is a Delhi-based writer