Musician and poet Jeet Thayil drew on his own experiences as an addict in Bombay to write his first novel, Narcopolis, a flashy, chaotic look at a small-time drug dealer and his customers. Narcopolis imports the rhythms and emphasis of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burroughs to chronicle the sick thrill of drugs, but uses the structural eye of a journalist to depict with scary clarity how heroin takes down bodies and cities simultaneously.
In Thayil’s book, a drug shop in the slums of Shuklaji Street rises to the level of protagonist as its proceeds power the neighborhood. Shop owner Rashid, accustomed to gathering his regulars around a pipe, feels pressured to move from selling opium to heroin to stay competitive, in spite of the violence and illness it brings its users; at the same time, the shop’s warmth and camaraderie creates an aura around it in the eyes of one of those regulars, Dom Ullis, a part-time New Yorker whose path to addiction and out again frames the story. The place also serves as a haven for Rashid’s assistant, Dimple, a former temple orphan who sees the shop as a means to respectability.
Narcopolis traces how even curious visitors can become addicts, particularly those who, like Ullis and his famous author friend, feel their relative wealth grants them a kinship the locals don’t feel toward them. (As Rashid’s son says to Ullis, “He had many customers and they all thought they were his friends.”) Yet even the cab drivers and beggars see the shop as their anchor, and their loneliness without it is the last symptom of withdrawal. A few swoony trips accompany the narrator’s fall into addiction, but as he and his fellow customers move from smoking together to injecting alone, a series of vignettes captures them, adrift without the communal comforts of the store, each of them headed to prison or rehab. Without glamorizing the effects of heroin on Rashid’s market, Thayil locks his characters into their courses and stays with them through their lowest moments.
In spite of opium’s addictive qualities, its infusion into Shuklaji Street offered its residents a sense of community, as Thayil ironically establishes long after Rashid’s shop has been forced to close, a victim of the increasingly violent heroin trade. Narcopolis offers just one survivor, Dimple, whose triumphant, improbable path to Bombay fills the gaps between her enigmatic pronouncements to Ullis as she builds herself the life she wants to live. Her romanticized view of the shop provides a spellbinding counterpoint to the depravity leaching into the lives of those around her. Ullis responds to her self-determination, and projects onto her his dream, however hazy, of what life in her Bombay was like.