Can we please declare the city of Mumbai as the official muse of South Asian grit-lit?Jeet Thayil’s book begins and ends with an invocation of this teeming metropolis that has inspired much, so-called, dirty realism. Notable work on Mumbai’s raw underbelly includeShantaram, and Slumdog Millionaire (based on Q & A: a novel, by Vikas Swarup) as well as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! Such creativity is fertile ground for social criticism even as it forces a re-look at that which we would avert our eyes from.
The angry, mean voice of a drug-addled Mumbaikar narrates accounts of brutish dark impulses. The skilfulness of the prose seems to be outdone only by the depravity that it describes. There is heartbreak on every page. Human train wrecks are waiting to happen, including substance abusers who will reliably let you down. An intense weariness with the cruelty and meaninglessness of life pervades the pages. Despair spreads like opium smoke in the chandukhana (opium house) as evidenced by these words: “He remembered that the stars were dead, long dead, and the light they shed was not to be trusted, it was false, if not an outright lie, and in any case was inadequate, unequal to its task, which was to illuminate the evil that men did.”
In Narcopolis, Thayil suggests that life in India is just too much to tolerate, and that spending large periods of time insensate appears to be the antidote of choice. In the convincing filthy street-speak patois of dirty realism: “The only non-chooths in the entire country are Maharashtrians… But even here, in the only non-choothiya place in the whole country, I challenge you to live here without turning to grade-A narcotics, said Rumi…”
The commentary frequently lashes out and becomes a searing critique of the injustices in the city. “Tell me why Chemical is freely available when there are no tomatoes in the market,” asks an unlikely philosopher of Shuklaji Street. Some readers will hear faint echoes of the allegation that American inner cities lack fresh produce whereas crack is freely available on street corners.
Even the paanwallah (betel nut seller), has an opinion on the problemwith-India topic: “Indians were too mild,” said the paanwallah, “and it was Gandhi’s fault. The old man had taken a race of bloodthirsty warriors, taught them nonviolence, and made them into saints and grass eaters. Dimple laughed. She told the paanwallah to take a look around. Indians are as violent and bloodthirsty as ever, and they would always be looking for an excuse to hack or burn or gouge each other.”
Several calamitous events, including the Mumbai riots and floods, endorse Dimple’s view within a historical context. There are allusions to the history of the drug trade of the city, that went from the merely debilitating opium to the lethal gharad. Readers might remember “Sea of Poppies” by Amitav Ghosh, which chronicles an earlier era in this trade. But while Ghosh writes as a social historian, Thayil brings the perspective of a reformed addict, having allegedly lost twenty years of his life to these destructive substances. Surprising then, that Thayil appears to be inexplicably championing the freedom of individuals to choose to self-destruct.
And self-destruct they do, their rapid decline chronicled in distressingly stark prose. In grainy, excruciatingly detail. Enough said.
Mira Nair’s film Salaam Bombay! and its cast of drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes had a humanist aesthetic. Narcopolis too, chronicles such lives, but is a far more chilling account of how the human spirit has bypassed grace and sunk to terrifying depths. The sole exception, the unexpectedly tender and bookish hijra randi or eunuch prostitute, Dimple, remains humane in this dystopian landscape. It is not enough. Ultimately, the darkness that has spread into the souls and lives of sadistic, ugly characters offers no possibility of redemption.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a writer and educator who lives in the SF Bay Area and encourages all readers to just say no to drugs.