Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

I keep reading novels of the Indian underworld, and they keep being good. I’m going to have to balance it out with A Suitable Boy, a non-crime novel about family relationships and manners and class. M. loved it, which is reason enough to read it, but also I suspect that if I skip it I’ll be developing a skewed and unwholesome view of desi fiction. But first… one more tale of crime and dissolution.

Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, takes place over about 30 years, as Bombay becomes Mumbai and the license raj gives way to global capital. In the slums, that’s less important. There, the ebb and flow of tension and violence between Hindu and Muslim is unceasing, and the only real difference is that chandu (opium) is replaced by garad (heroin). The rich and privileged dabble in drugs, get sucked in, get clean, relapse, get clean again. The poor start out hopeless and never have a chance. Everyone has an excuse and a justification and time stretches out to nothing.

As a companion, consider Steven Martin’s memoir Opium Fiend, which explains a lot about the elaborate and now-outdated opium smoking equipment (it actually just vaporizes, rather than burns, the drug) that seems to play as important a role as the poets and dreamers who get sucked into the opiate undertow of Narcopolis.

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