To say it has been a mad couple of months would be an understatement, holidays, catching up on the work that piled up whilst I was on holidays, charity work, running and all whilst attempting to be a dad!!! Thank goodness I’ve had a great Booker Prize shortlist to transport me away from the day to day grind, pity I haven’t had time to update my blog. This will be a short review only.
I read this novel about a month ago so please forgive me if my recollections aren’t fresh and straight onto the page. This is Indian poet Jeet Thayil’s debut novel and even though it is primarily a novel about drug addiction, it is also a social reflection on the city once known as Bombay (the novel begins and ends with the work “Bombay”).
This novel opens with our mysterious narrator stating, “…and since I’m the one telling it (the story) and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now”, and moves throughout from first person to third person narrative across numerous characters. The eunuch prostitute and opium den worker Dimple, is the one who seems to appear most, but she is not the narrator. We also have den owner addict and family man Rumi, a celebrated artist who can’t control his addictions, an ageing Chinese refugee who laments on a place and time lost as well as our “narrator” recently returned from the USA.
The common bond being drugs, this is an hallucinatory story about loss of identity, motivations for addiction, peppered with dream like sequences, bold tales of the physical impacts of drugs containing graphic details of violence and sex. Through addiction, each character has lost more than their control of their lives, this is how the raw underbelly of a city existed in the 1970’s.
Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don’t ask questions, or they don’t ask irrelevant questions. They can’t afford to. All they can afford is laughter and ghosts. Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency?
There is also the melting pot of religion, race, gender, poverty vs wealth and more in this dark tale, that reflects the seemingly better capitalist world of the future (Mumbai) against the not too distant past, as well as giving voice to the victims of that time. Is the new future life of being clean what the poor and addicted want?
Unlike any other Indian novel I have read before this debut strikingly delves into the city of Bombay and the tales of opium, cocaine and heroin addiction are startlingly real, and I could understand why some readers have found the subject matter, the style (who’s voice is talking now?) and the bleak moral a bit too much to handle. Another realist novel on the 2012 shortlist, looks like we’re living in very very dark times indeed.