Academics insist, insistently, that pleasure apart, literature teaches lessons. More than a hundred years ago, Victor Hugo’s translator spent pages successfully convincing French readers of the historical value of the scenes from Napolean’s war in Les Miserables; More recently, Thomas Piketty seduced readers world-wide with economics lessons gleaned from the works of Jane Austen. And, two almost identically designed scientific studies, one from the United States, another from the Netherlands, “demonstrated” the value of literature in creating empathy.
Writers complained about these studies that attempted to evaluate the usefulness of literature. Responding to the studies, the novelist Lee Siegel wrote, “The active daydream of writing and reading fiction is idleness in its purest state, neither promising nor leading to any practical or concrete result”.
In his objection to the study results, Siegel also tried to say that what the studies don’t take into account as a variable, is the reader. If indeed literature’s significance is, as Tagore once wrote, “in its capacity to let the human world flow into our hearts”, then the success of literature depends not only on the writer’s capacity to make the human world available, but also on the reader’s capacity to be curious enough to let the human world in.
How to use Narcopolis
If your curiosity does not extend to junkies on Bombay’s Shuklaji street, here are some instructions for the use of Narcopolis. For if you make your way through the book linearly, and without immediate experience of sympathy, you may feel unimpressed, even cheated. Led on by the colourful cover and the opening verse in prose on gender, the reader looking for an explanation of why they should feel sympathy might be seduced into analysing the character of the half-man, half-woman Dimple, who is learning how to read.
Led on and led astray, I might add, into a gender bending exercise that goes nowhere, because the character of Dimple-the-eunuch-reader, who works in an opium den, like the character of Dom, her writer and the junkie who buys from her, do not stick together in a coherent way that offers a lesson.
Drop the character analysis, drift a bit, and you may begin to come closer to that state of idleness required from reading. Then you will find that allegories ooze from Narcopolis. Some hit you on the head, some slither by, some are self-aware, others unflinchingly not, but they have in common their presentation: all are swathed in swirls of smoke, recounted in the dream-like, borderline-amnesiac, haze of a drug addict’s inner world.
Vivid, with a musicality that penetrates to the bone, Narcopolis is a kind of perceptual experience, the kind that leaves you wondering later, the drug user’s perpetual question: did you really have something or did you just dream it all?
The revenge of the colonised
A drug user, of course, hastily uses again to answer this very question. But I am not a user, I think (virtuously), so I leaf through the book to return to a particular scene that impacted me. This is the India-rapes-England scene, an almost perfect allegory for a post-colonial Indian psyche.
The scene is Dimple’s dream. It takes on a cinematic quality, with flashing subtitles. An image of a young pale-skinned and fair-haired girl arises. Picturesque on an intact green lawn topped by azure sky, the girl takes off her hat, lifts her dress, squats and evacuates into her hat. The dreamer is aware of army of shadows hovering on the periphery of the lawn.
Subtitles flash: “For two hundred years I gave you context and how did you reward me?”. The “I” is India, the “you” is England. The girl appears clueless even as the shadows draw closer, revealing themselves as ethnic ecclesiastical figures in robes of white or saffron. The figures reveal brown-black penises, they dip into the girl’s hat and smear themselves with the faeces-or-blood mixture. Then the camera shows a close-up of a brown penis penetrating the girl’s anus, while the the subtitles flash, “Tradition” and “Values”. The camera cuts to a priest who audibly says “This is India”. Dimple, the dreamer, wakes, in horror.
Dimple’s dream, a fleeting digression in the scope of Narcopolis, rivals other superb descriptions of post-colonial sentiment, such as those that flow from the character of Salim in VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, or those of the judge in Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. A stand-alone re-reading of this violent scene leaves me so shaky, even incoherent, that I need to return to the first chapter of the book, where the calming ritual of rolling an opium pipe and the lulling description of it’s effects, returns me to my senses.
This in effect is the repeated experience of Narcopolis: sweet doses of opium are cruelly jarred by the harshness of the lives of those who sell and buy it. When the opium is replaced by heroin, when the sweetness is not as distinct, the reader can hardly bear the lives of the characters, and as the harshness builds, one closes the book with a kind of admiring relief.
A familiar, horrific daydream
If you hesitate to read Narcopolis because you don’t want to hit the drop that cradles the sewage of humanity, you have my fullest sympathy, I suspect you might even have Thayil’s. Perhaps that is why he offers, in his much beloved first chapter, an ode to precisely how sweet, how delicious, how incomparable those first few hits of opium were. Like his characters, you will find it insufficient ultimately, as a means of coping with the horrors that lie in store for you in your disappointingly human life.
Try out this music perhaps with a metaphor you can relate to: does dwelling on – even drawing out – the pleasures of the first sight of soft pink dawn, the first bars of music you hear, the first sips of sweet, hot, delicious, coffee you taste on a crisp winter morning, help you better cope with the difficulty of being human? It depends, you might say, on how low the song goes, the depth to which the coffee, the morning light and the music percolates.
For the junkie, the music goes low and deep, s/he has perhaps a sensibility that naturally lets the world flow in. When the drug stops, though, when the music ends, the sensitivity remains, and the world that flowed in is even more jarring than it was before s/he took the hit.
For those who can freak, sink and nod with his musical score, Thayil offers a daydream, underwritten by a melody that is both hauntingly familiar and horrific. From this music, even the most puritan among us might desist for a moment the depressingly real and rational question of asking ourselves how real or useful dreams are, especially drug induced ones. Instead, in sympathy with the human experience, you find yourself dropping the question of whether or not dreams are real but simply affirming how essential they can be for human survival.
So if you like life useful and straight up, then by all means, approach this work from a utilitarian perspective. If you can stand it. Go straight to India’s rape of England, unplugged, on page 236. Do not pass Go, do not collect Rs 200: see if you can drink it neat.
But if you are a less fortunate, less reality-oriented soul, ride the painful ride of Narcopolis’s poetry, knowing that the point of it is, brilliant digressions aside, that Narcopolis goes nowhere – but does it poignantly, graphically, painfully, and mellifluously.
Amrita Narayanan is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Goa. She is the author of a short story collection, A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, and of numerous non-fiction psychoanalytic essays on women and sexuality that have been published in India, the UK and the USA.