In Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil painstakingly reveals the squalid yet almost collegiate world of a small opium den in Mumbai in the 1970s, a place where he spent many years in a haze of self-induced oblivion.
Thayil, a former addict, is a renowned poet and his lyricism lifts even the desperation and depravity of the drug world. However flawed, there is a community that exists in the dens. Rituals, like the preparation of the opium pipe, are almost reverentially depicted in some cases.
Foreign hippies, interlopers seeking the ultimate experience, arrive seemingly absorbed into the culture that they are never really a part of.
It wasn’t just in the hippies’ anthem that times were a changing. The Gandhian promise is already crumbling, giving way to a period of internal conflict of frightening and random brutality. The arrival of heroin and cocaine see the slow languid spiral of opium addiction become a uncontrollable helter-skelter ride.
In amongst the squalor, Thayil creates intense, humane relationships, like Dimple the eunuch, and her benefactor, the Chinese ex-soldier, Mr Lee. Mr Lee’s memories of the events leading up to his exile from his homeland is one of the highlights of the book.
Narcopolis would seem a dead cert to make the short list (bearing in mind that there are still ten books to check out.)