The star of Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil's debut novel about Bombay, is Dimple, a transsexual burkha-wearing sex worker searching for beauty and transcendence while managing her addiction to opium. If that’s not enough “Other” to get your attention, you should know that Thayil navigates the complex terrains of religion, sexuality and addiction with a startling tenderness. “Woman and man are words other people use, not me,” Dimple says to the narrator. “I’m not sure what I am.” Later, when the narrator reads to the mostly illiterate Dimple a review of the work of Newton Xavier, an aging “postmodern subversive” artist, Dimple looks at the pictures of his paintings and proclaims “he wants to make everything ugly. He wants to kill the world. She said, how you can you trust a man like that?”
Most of the book centers on Dimple’s relationship with Mr. Lee, a self-exiled Chinese national who keeps the best opium pipes in the city and dreams of the day when his ashes can return home. The two forge an unlikely alliance: Mr. Lee takes Dimple in and provides her with safety, comfort and a profession, and Dimple serves as his caretaker, companion and apprentice. There’s an idyllic quality to these chapters and the reader gets the sense that these were the happy times in Dimple’s life. It is with Mr. Lee that she starts to reflect on what it is she really values and it is here that we get a glimmer of what Dimple is searching for:
Her favorite book was a slim collection of prophecies by a nun who wrote in Konkani ... The book was terrifying, not because it contained endless description of civil butchery and mass suicide, but because of the serene accompanying sketches of trees, streams, and sunbirds … And though she knew she was dreaming, that Sister Remedios’s book was her own invention and the world was as intact as it had ever been, she whimpered in her sleep at the ferocity of her dreams.
Beauty and identity. Trust and betrayal. Sainthood and destruction. These are the issues that concern Dimple as she descends further and further into the seedy underbelly of Bombay’s opium dens. Dimple’s dreams captivate her even as they terrify her. They have the trappings of religious ecstasy and the wondrous, horrifying visions she sees.
Photo of the author by Suguna Sridhar
The demise of Mr. Lee combined with the arrival of cheap, dangerous heroin into the city drives Dimple out of her home and propels her into a darker, less forgiving world. The drugs are harder, the people are more violent. She meets Rashid, a devout Muslim, opium den owner, and pimp who protects her but also traps her in the world by taking advantage of her sexually and enabling her addiction. Rashid demands that Dimple wear a burkha to entice the primarily Muslim clientele. “To want a woman to wear this thing,” she thinks, “you had to know the danger that lay in looking.” Beatings become commonplace. Prostitution becomes more and more hazardous. Men murder each other in the street with hammers and heroin becomes the poisoned lifeblood of the city. Even so, she continues her search for beauty. She explores works of art, she picks up books on reincarnation, she interrogates poets -- all in the quest to understand herself and her visions.
As the city becomes consumed by destruction and drug abuse, she is haunted both literally and figuratively by Mr. Lee and the promise to him that she is unable to keep. As the city destroys itself around her and she succumbs to her addiction, Dimple makes one last effort to save herself, fleeing to the Safer rehab clinic.
Yet through it all, Dimple retains her dignity and grace even in her most desolate moments. When asked why she does drugs, a dying Dimple replies "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?" Even in this moment, Dimple focuses on the best that life can give her and it is here, alone and dying in the clinic, dreaming her crazed, prophetic dreams, that we realize that the beauty that Dimple has been searching for all along is in herself. Through Dimple, Thayil gives his readers a startling and unconventional portrait of a saint.
Thayil is a gifted storyteller and the issues he chooses to explore in the book as well as his careful attention to character make Narcopolis a gripping read. Dimple’s unrelenting search for beauty and unwavering commitment to goodness makes what could be a difficult story engaging and entertaining. His attention to the lives of characters at the margins both presents us with a human picture of the opium trade as well as a rich portrait of India’s diversity. That’s not to say that Narcopolis does not have its flaws. The disappearance of the frame narrator for most of the book and his abrupt reappearance to bring Dimple to the rehab clinic reads more like a convenient plot device than substantive character development. Other secondary characters also drop in and out of the novel with the same abruptness. But on the whole, Thayil manages to paint a compelling picture of Bombay just as everything begins to fall apart. The moments of beauty that permeate the work make the brutality of the world he’s created not only bearable but compelling. It’s a stunning accomplishment and a monumental first novel.
G. Justin Hulog writes stories about ruined gods, forgotten spaces and new worlds. Born in Baguio City, he grew up in California before leaving home to study Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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