Digressions of an Opium-Eater

Käthe Kollwitz, Death and a Woman Struggling for a Child, 1911

Drugs are the perfect consumer product. Almost always expensive, they are useless beyond their consumption, the very fact of which is total: once smoked, snorted, eaten, or drunk, they’re gone. In the moment of their purchase, not only do we exchange cash for an object exclusively for pleasure—a perfectly ideological act of consumption—but we also interpolate ourselves into the very heart of state repression and violence, into the police-prison-industrial complex and the militaristic destabilization, wreaked by the ‘war on drugs,’ of whole regions of the globe. And just as doing drugs involves us in this once- or twice-removed violence against others, so does it inflict violence on ourselves: the pocked skin, withered veins and broken teeth outward signs of a person crushed beneath his own desires.

And yet, in drugs one also finds the irrational, the uncontainable, the self-abolishing and the excessive: the very fundaments of pleasure. The intellectually, physically and sexually freeing properties of intoxication, not to mention the funny and terrifying experiences they yield, often make for a fuller life. Narcotics have a privileged place in many spiritual traditions–even Jews are instructed to get black-out drunk on Purim–and most cultures have found or produced psychoactive substances and installed them in one social capacity or another. The psychedelic mystic precedes the capitalist by millennia.

As a result, drugs are over-determined in a host of contradictory directions. At once rebellious and perfectly conformist, getting high is one of the fundamental forms of modern sociality (how many towns lack liquor stores or bars?) and one of society’s most violently repressed taboos. Enmeshed in this nexus is the addict. At the mercy of the commodity, so enslaved to the pleasure of consumption that she ends up consuming herself, the addict is, in the extremity of her desire and her suffering, novelistically privileged to reveal them.

Jeet Thayil’s digressive, capacious debut novel, Narcopolis, follows a number of such symbolically loaded addicts as they get high in and around an opium den on Shuklaji Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Bombay’s red light district. Central among the poppy worshippers is Dimple, a beautiful eunuch. Born male, she was castrated as a child, sold into prostitution, and raised in a brothel; at Mr. Rashid’s, she becomes a server, hostess, expert conversationalist, and opium addict.

We first see Dimple through the eyes of Dom, a layabout junkie and, briefly, our narrator, as he gets high and kills time at Rashid’s in heavy-lidded talk. When Dom arrives (and the novel opens) sometime in the 1970s, Mr. Rashid’s is at the height of its success, having become (under)world-famous both for its gorgeous Ming Dynasty opium pipes and for Dimple, their beautiful and mysterious tender. The pipes function as the narrative device through which we meet all of the novel’s characters: as Dimple minds the pipes and chats with the customers, she becomes a kind of screen, her addiction, her aging, and the many interactions she has with Narcopolis’s other inhabitants reflecting, sometimes obliquely and sometimes directly, India’s wrenching transformation into a globalized post-modernity.

If the addict is socially synecdochic, and if Narcopolis’s addicts often mirror particular moments of East Asian history, they also contain multitudes. Thayil has a sensitive touch, and in his characters manages to make whole (and wholly broken) people who only rarely seem bent to the task of metaphor-making. He does this with Dimple by changing our narrative distance from  her. Some fifty pages into the novel, in the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a story, Dom stops narrating and disappears. Because the preceding scenes have swum in and out of lucidity, we don’t notice Dom’s disappearance until he has been gone for some time. The slow dissolution of Dom’s “I,” combined with the poetic and often hallucinatory flow of Thayil’s prose, brings us closer to Dimple than the earlier third-person narration allowed.

Our closeness to Dimple contrasts dramatically with her position on the edges of society. Along with the other characters who circle Mr. Rashid’s, she is among that vast majority whose story is glossed over in the narrative of Indian modernization and the rise of the middle class. In the early parts of the novel, Mr. Rashid’s has a squalid glamour. A famous artist’s infatuation with Dimple mirrors the utopian promises of globalization as they extend even to the most marginal zones of the city: opening Shuklaji Street to the business of the world means a new fluidity of culture and experience for the street’s denizens. That Dimple finds her encounter with the artist as confusing and traumatic as eye-opening and exciting hints at the coming failure of those promises, for her and for Bombay. This ambivalence runs throughout the novel, and throughout India’s recent history. Millions have been pulled out of poverty, but millions more remain just as deeply entrenched, and the neoliberal entry of the Market into every crevice of Indian society has uprooted, unmade and then remade in its image many lives, traditions and cities.

Dimple is not the only character caught up in great historical changes: perhaps the most compelling of Narcopolis’s stories is that of Mr. Lee, Chinese refugee, ex-officer of the People’s Liberation Army, and proprietor of another Shuklaji chandu-khana (Shuklaji Street was also the center of Bombay’s Chinatown, until the Sino-Indian war of 1962 made Bombay inhospitable and many Chinese left for other countries). The original owner of Mr. Rashid’s pipes, it is Mr. Lee who first sells Dimple opium, and first trains her in the art of preparing bowls and serving customers. When Dimple, a native of Bombay, meets Lee, he has just arrived from China, in flight from the violence of Mao’s cultural revolution: “She said she liked the city because it was big and there were many strangers who became friends. She said he was lucky to start somewhere new. He made a gesture with his shoulders, a tiny gesture that told her the precise extent of his unluckiness.” A quarter of the novel is taken up with the story behind that gesture–the history of Lee and his parents in revolutionary China. Lee’s mother is a devoted peasant revolutionary, his father a dissipated and ultimately dissident novelist, and the account of their lives makes a great novella in its own right, expanding Narcopoliss view beyond the restraints of both Shuklaji Street and the traditional drug narrative. Thayil describes the tragedy of Mr. Lee’s familial collapse in a way that both makes that family immediately present and implies a diversity of experiences and families. Novels are often good at capturing the immensity of individual experience; much more difficult is the task of capturing a collective one.

In this giddy immensity, Thayil’s rendering of the social borders on the virtuosic, and produces a strange and evocative contradiction: Narcopolis is a book about the poorest of the poor prostituting themselves to feed an addiction that is slowly destroying them, and yet it is suffused with joy and vitality. Here, Dimple has just begun sleeping with Rashid in order to keep a room above his opium den:

Sometimes, when they were fucking, she thought of a story she’d read in which the plague arrived to a town in Europe. You sneezed for a few days and died, just like that. As soon as people were identified as sick, they were bundled into carts and taken to the cemetery, where they were dumped, alive, to await burial. In the carts, the men and women fell on each other like animals, not stopping even when they were seized by the handlers and flung onto the cemetery grounds. It seemed to her that they, Rashid and she, fucked in the same way that the plague-stricken couples did, in a frenzy, to the death.

The passage is brutal but never misanthropic, the scene cruel but Thayil’s portrayal respectful. As Thayil embeds and nests these narratives—both vile and beautiful—like Matryoshkas, the cumulative piling of the stories at times resembles that of a metropolis’s, all the glory and ugliness of social experience added together to make up the single character of the city.

But if the drug narrative is privileged in its capacity for social commentary, it is restricted by the limiting nature of the physical addiction. The drug addict’s tale is almost always a terminal one: either she gets clean, thus becoming something other than an addict, or she dies. In Narcopolis, the influx into India of heroin—which wipes away the elaborate traditions and ‘safe’ addiction of opium—marks the collapse from habit into disease for Dimple and Rashid, and heralds the larger-scale collapse of Shuklaji Street (now covered in glittery condo towers, in the book and in Mumbai) and India as a whole.

The addict and her drugs too easily follow a simple narrative axis (collapse/redemption), which forms the contours of the ‘drug novel,’ and pushes the historical commentary into a sort of down-and-dirty moral Hegelianism. The only way out of this trap is to refuse resolution, to remain half in hallucination, half-told: think of the frightening incongruities of Naked Lunch or the narrative ellipses of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (which Narcopolis sometimes resembles).  Thayil doesn’t tell the story of India as one of simple collapse, but with the swing towards decay, Narcopolis’s lightness, its peculiarly warm embrace of a world full of suffering, wobbles, turns dreary. As the standard downward spiral of the drug narrative asserts itself, what is most unusual about the book–its its buoyancy, its resistance to misery–disappears.

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Which is a shame, because Narcopolis is better not as a ‘drug novel’ but as a social novel. Thayil himself is a recovering addict, which undoubtedly gives him some insight into the interior lives of his addicts, but the limits of the drug narrative ultimately foreclose the possibilities of social exploration that Thayil so deftly opens. The patchwork of nested fragments is more satisfying than the framing arc that is Dom’s story: when Dom returns in the early oughts, cleaned up, to narrate the book’s final act, despair has become the overwhelming emotional note. The city–and the novel–feel narrow, desiccated, as empty as the high-rises leering down over Shuklaji. At the last moment, the novel retreats, recedes, its kaleidoscope of incomplete stories retracting into a series of completed, tellable tales.

The narrative tragedy of the addict is that we know what will happen to her. Her addiction and her narrative fate combine to strip her of agency, turning her into an object formed totally by her surroundings. And so more interesting than her story will always be the story of the world refracted through her.