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