My 2012 Booker shortlist adventure continues, this time in the rambling, incoherent world of opium and heroin addicts in Mumbai. I didn’t have high hopes, as I invariably find that books praised for being hallucinatory or delirium-induced end up being dead pretentious and really hard work to read. Once I’d got through the opening seven pages though, which did not contain one single full stop (sigh), it wasn’t that bad.
The book opens in 1970s Bombay (as it was then), and for the most part tells the story of the hijra Dimple, and Rashid, the owner of an opium den. Dimple, who was castrated at the age of 12, is beautiful and readily passes for a biological women. She is working as a prostitute when she comes to Rashid, bringing with her the ornate antique opium pipes that belonged to her now dead friend, Mr Lee. In return for the pipes, Rashid employs her to prepare them for customers. And so an abiding love affair, friendship and business arrangement is born. The novel drifts in and out of periods and narrators, and so we learn of Mr Lee’s past in communist China, Dimple’s childhood, and some of the band of regulars at Rashid’s establishment. They all come for the opium prepared by Dimple, and as the den’s reputation spreads so does its popularity, drawing customers from all walks of life, including plenty of Westerners on the hippy trail. As time passes, Mumbai changes, and so does the demand for drugs. Despite initial resistance, Rashid begins to sell heroin, and as the city descends into the turmoil of riots and violence, so the lives of Dimple, Rashid and the regulars fall apart.
The book is a bit of a mixed bag, at times hitting great heights. Some passages are annoying and boring, and there is a pointless subplot about murders in the city that never really goes anywhere, but the characters are compelling. There is tragedy in Dimple’s downward trajectory from beauty to ageing heroin addict, and Mr Lee’s story of life in Maoist China is absorbing. With a light touch, Thayil also raises the contradictions of the modern India, with economic boom disguising the rot at the heart of Mumbai. Beggars shit in the street, middle-class boys throw their lives away on heroin, and good Muslim sons have no qualms about dealing cocaine. This is a book that will suck you into a twilight zone of the dreams and nightmares of addiction, if you can get past all that poetic and hallucinatory prose that is : )