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Narcopolis – Sex, Drugs, and Religion in Mumbai’s Underbelly

When I heard about Narcopolis, I was immediately intrigued. Even though the author was talking about the same city I’d grown up in, Jeet Thayil’s Bombay was much darker, insidious and frankly more interesting than the extremely sheltered suburban life I was exposed to while living there.

When I read the book it did not disappoint. Thayil, who was himself an opium addict haunting the streets of Bombay in the 70s and 80s, tells the story of the old Bombay as it transitions into Mumbai through the eyes of a handful of opium addicts. The evolution of the city runs parallel to the evolution of the drug industry as it shifts from being dominated by laid back, relatively benign opium to dark and terrifying heroin.

As the lives of the addicts descend into heroin induced chaos, so does the city with Hindu-Muslim riots. In Thayil’s book, the city of Bombay is as much a lead character as any of the people. I found myself completely hooked on the story and evolution of the city.

Normally, I am not one to read and recommend dark and depressing books. But I highly recommend Narcopolis. With a cast of characters ranging from Dimple, an opium addicted eunuch prostitute, to Rashid, an addict and opium den owner, to others who are addicted to either violence, sex, or religion, Thayil explores the various addictions that afflict the human condition. And shows the strength of human spirit, of the will to live, the instinct to avoid pain and the ability to find fleeting moments of happiness and comfort under the most dire circumstances.

While growing up in India, I was always curious about the lives of eunuchs who are known as hijras. I often saw them dancing and demanding money in front of houses where male children had just been born. They were said to confer blessings onto the newborn.  Though this book doesn’t go into detail about the hijra community, it is a fascinating look at one individual.

As someone who spent much of my childhood living in Bombay, most of the areas described in the book were already familiar to me. I pulled up a map online for the ones that weren’t. I found out that the brothels and opium dens in this story were just a few blocks away from where I used to go shopping for saris with my mom. I had no idea we were so close to the so called “red light district”!

I followed Thayil’s characters through both the story and the city – on drives to Chowpatty Beach, through the crowded brothels and opium dens on Arab Gully, through town into the suburbs. I came away with a sense of city I never had before.

Narcopolis is a fascinating look at life in the city of dreams over the past few decades. It is a must read for anyone who has a connection to the city of Mumbai.

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