I’ve just finished reading Jeet Thayil’s Booker long-listed Narcopolis, a swooning tale of remorseless addiction in Bombay. It’s mesmerising, conjuring a world that is filthy, violent, elegant and human.

From the rarified confines of the opium den – where the ritual of preparing the pipe was an artform and the consumption of the drug a languorous surrender – to the advent of heroin and cocaine, the novel charts 25 years of drug-taking against the backdrop of Bombay’s transformation from a diverse and tolerant city to a religiously polarised one.

The incredibly well-preserved Jeet Thayil.

Its realism – its relentless attention to the detail of getting high – is borne from experience. Thayil was himself a drug addict for 20 years, and this is his fictionalised memoir. What astonishes me, when I discover more about him, is his incredibly youthful appearance. For 53, he looks remarkably young. And for an ex-junkie/ex-alcoholic, remarkably healthy – if on the thin side.

I am even more astonished to find that unlike the typical junkie, he was high-functioning, successfully carrying out some high-flying jobs.

“I was a journalist and a junkie for 20 years,” he says in one interview, “and unlike the junkie cliché, I had good jobs all over the world. I was a books editor, I did financial journalism for Asia Week for five years, I was Bombay correspondent for the South China Morning Post for 18 months, I worked for every newspaper in India doing arts journalism. I was a hardworking junkie.”

hardworking junkie. He stopped when he found out he had Hepatitis C.

No remorse

Like Thayil – or perhaps like most addicts – for his characters, the addiction itself comes without remorse. When Dimple, a eunuch, goes to rehab, she is asked the inevitable by one of her inmate mentors.

“…[W]hen Carl said, Why do you take drugs? she told him what she thought, told him the truth because the least such a question deserved was a real answer. She said, Oh, who knows, there are so many good reasons and nobody mentions them and the main thing nobody mentions is the comfort of it, how good it is to be a slave to something, the regularity and the habit of addiction, the fact that it’s an antidote to loneliness, and the way it becomes your family, gives you mother love and protection and keeps you safe.”

Later she says: “[I]t isn’t the heroin that we’re addicted to, it’s the drama of the life, the chaos of it, that’s the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered – why would we choose anything else?”

Ben said something like this to me in the early days. It was during his first time in rehab. He said: “Of course I want to drink. I always do. It’s always there.” And when he said this, I knew that he was going to relapse, which he did. I think he already had, actually. By the time he came out of rehab the second time, he said he didn’t think about it, didn’t think about drinking at all. I don’t think he said it to make me feel better, because he also said that he still thinks of dying, that he can’t be bothered to eat most days. These are amber warnings that I can’t do anything to address.

Why did he drink? Why do people take drugs. Of course they do it because it feels good at the time. They do it because they want to and then they do it because they can’t help it. This is the common advice on the matter.

Years have passed. I’ve lived with an alcoholic. I still don’t understand addiction. So I read books like these, and other people’s blogs and I try to understand, even though the alcoholic has long gone – at least from my home, if not from my life.


9 thoughts on “Narcopolis

  1. I am curious – why is it so important for you to understand addiction? I say this not in an accusatory or inflammatory manner. It’s more of a curious manner. (This is where text is not enough to convey the softness in how I ask). As an alcoholic, I do understand it only because I have and experience(d) alcoholism. Even then, I have no clue why I have it, how it manifested, etc. Some say genetics, some say this, some say that. I have no clue why I have it and my brother doesn’t.

    You mention the alcoholic out of your life, but you struggle to put something together here…perhaps like understanding the addiction will piece together Ben? I don’t know, and I apologize for making any sort of supposition or play junior thereapist. But I know that my folks went through the same sort of thing – went to alanon for a bit, went through the after care family program at my treatment center, read alanon literature, etc. They don’t do that any more, but I have always wondered if them trying to figure this all out would give them a window into their son, the drunk?


    My wife only went to two alanon meetings and didn’t like them. Read a bit, and has relied on me to explain addiction, but doesn’t seem terribly interested. She is, however, interested in the results…lol. She reads my blog now and then. Maybe she gets something out of those…not sure. We don’t talk about it, frankly. It’s not an important issue, in terms of the nuts and bolts.

    But I am not sure how much a non-addict can understand about addiction without being there. It’s like me understanding pregnancy, but I never will because I wasn’t born with that ability. As you and 90% of the population weren’t born with addiction waiting to rear it’s ugly head. I think one can get it intellectually, but it’s still a tough slog when the question of “why can’t they just stop?” Or “was I not enough for him to stop?” etc. Questions that even I would struggle to put in words that would make sense. If it makes you feel any better, even I wonder about those who are gamblers or sex addicts – how do they continue, knowing the consequences? How could someone bet the children’s school tuition in a roulette game? How can someone see prostitutes when they could chance getting an illness?? And this is me as an alcoholic asking this! I mean, I know the answer deep down, but it’s hard to look at the behaviour and quantify it.

    Anyway, this is a novel now.

    I hope you find what you seek,my friend.

    It’s tough sometimes.


    • I fell in love with an addict who had a significant amount of time sober.. So I didn’t even think about al-anon until he relapsed for about the 8th time. I also only attended about 2 or 3 meetings and couldn’t deal with being in a room full of people JUST trying to cope and seemingly not able to live their own lives.

      I did try to understand addiction though, because it was suggested of me by al-anon and my other addict friends. Being a normie, it’s just… impossible. I completely agree with you. Why try when there’s just no way you could reach complete comprehension?

      Well, being a codependent in that relationship means that you’re probably a control freak, which I was. I felt so helpless in a situation where I kept hearing that his addiction has nothing to do with me. I felt that of course it has SOMETHING to do with me… we’re together. And a relationship means 2 people working things out. They say love has no rules and boundaries, but c’mon.. there are. Love with an addict, though, is just complete chaos.

      So I tried my best to understand it. I read books, I asked people, I went on forums, I even tried talking to my now ex-boyfriend/love of my life…And to some extent, it really helped me.

      But the only thing that 100% helped me was to do my own personal development… Learning to love myself and put myself first changed the game. Though now I am without him, and it was a rollercoaster of a relationship… I, a girl with immense “daddy issues” and huge traumas in her life, learned to love myself. So because I tried to understand addiction, I stumbled upon my own salvation.

      Don’t get me wrong. I miss him to death. But every time I do catch myself wanting to get back into that toxicity, I have to remind myself that he’s back in rehab and I need to continue what I started and be better… not bitter.

      Sorry I was so all over the place. I said way more than I intended.

      Cheers, friend.

      • I’m sorry you’ve been through this. You wrote of a heroin addict and alcoholic on your blog. Was this one and the same individual? Terrible! Poor you. Good for you for getting away from him and putting yourself first. Thanks for dropping by.

    • I ask myself the same question. Why am I so obsessed? I don’t really know for sure, but I guess it has to do with trying to answer a few other questions, like: Could I have done something differently? Was it somehow my fault? And, if I could somehow understand addiction, maybe I could stop it from happening again. So, it all comes back to control, I think. A need to be able to control my environment and not have to face that situation again. And then, on another level, it’s about understanding something that feels unknowable. So, it’s the challenge of getting to one truth of the human condition. Something in there – the frailty, the vulnerability, the determined-to-fuck-upness (pardon my language) – this is what makes us human beings, too. And I want to understand it. Although, try as I might, I seem unable to. Thank you, as ever, for sharing, Paul. Peace.

  2. I think for some people it truly is the only time they feel okay is when they are high or drunk, and that is sad. It’s not an excuse… I just think some people are not strong enough to cope. I don’t know what the answer is…. when they talk about rock bottom I think it means they have to get to a point where they have lost everything and something.. anything becomes more important than the drug. I think some people never get there and they end up dead. Depressing I know… at least your ex is managing sobriety. Too late maybe for you, but good for him he did drink himself to death.

    • Yes, indeed. There is that, too. After all, they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t give them some respite. If I think of all the little vices I indulge in (cake – yay!) vs. the effort of counteracting that vice (exercise – boo!), you’d think I would avoid the cake to avoid having to work it off. But noooooo, I need the cake. And no, cake isn’t some euphemism for drugs. It IS a drug. A drug called cake. As in Victoria sponge cake, or lemon poppyseed cake, or…. well, you get the picture. So, I eat the cake and then I work out. And sometimes, I enjoy both. But I digress. So, yes, you’re right. They do it because it’s likely the only time they can bear to be with themselves – because they are outside themselves (if that makes any sense). And they tend to come off it as a last ditch effort at survival. It’s as base as that – but that really is what probably turns them around. I’m sure that’s what turned Ben around. It was the simple fact that he couldn’t cope with it any more. He knew it had to change or he would die. And for all his talk of wanting to die, that wasn’t a path he was willing to tread. So he’s sober. For now, anyway.

      • I have a friend… and I know she would rather be dead than give up the drink. Good for Ben. I wish him well with his continued sobriety. I wish you well too, with all that you have had to cope with. 🙂

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