The history of Mumbai no one told you

Jan 15, 2012, 17:36 IST | Dhamini Ratnam

In his first fiction title Narcopolis, poet Jeet Thayil revisits the metropolis of his childhood to uncover the secret history of Mumbai, where drugs and sex counter the sanitised versions of the stories we narrate about it

In his first fiction title Narcopolis, poet Jeet Thayil revisits the metropolis of his childhood to uncover the secret history of Mumbai, where drugs and sex counter the sanitised versions of the stories we narrate about it

Jeet Thayil is a performer and a poet. But when he chose to write about Bombay (not Mumbai), he went long form. Narcopolis, which was released recently, deals with what Thayil calls "the secret history" of the city, the bedrock its past and present are based on. The tightly woven narrative never loses its grip on its readers, even as it weaves its way through the opium dens on Shuklaji Road, the kothis in Kamathipura, and for a brief interlude, Communist China.

Pic by Tejal Shah courtesy Jeet Thayil

Excerpts of an interview with the author, who has lived in the city as a young boy, and later and as an older one, intermittently over 15 years.

Narcopolis belongs to an interesting lineage of books on the City, where contemporary history mingles with the narrator's comment on the present. What is it about present Mumbai that you are struck by, and wish to bring out through the narrative? And how well does nostalgia serve as a trope to do so?
Though much of Narcopolis is set in Bombay in the 70s and 80s, it ends with a picture of the city as it is today and it points towards a possible future. The book begins and ends with the same word, 'Bombay', and in some ways the city is the central character. As for nostalgia, I think it's a useful device for a writer.
But I've always been suspicious of the novel that paints India in soft focus, a place of loved children and loving elders, of monsoons and mangoes and spices. To equal Bombay as a subject you would have to go much further than the merely nostalgic will allow. The grotesque may be a more accurate means of carrying out such an enterprise.

Pic/Datta Kumbhar

The opium dens of the city are part-legend, part-folklore in the highly sanitised scripts of urban imaginings we are surrounded by. Mumbai has variously been maximum city, underworld den, city of dreams and now, Shanghai-aspirant. What do you think this tussle of seamy and sanitised representation holds out for a city of 1.24 crore and where does Narcopolis fit in that framework of representation?

In the course of 40 years, between 1800 and 1840, Bombay was transformed from a collection of seven malarial islands to India's premier metropolis, thanks mainly to opium. It was from Bombay that the East India Company exported opium and raw cotton to China. The city's economic rise and eventual emergence as the financial capital of India had everything to do with opium.

This is something most history books omit. Not to mention the fact that the East India Company became the biggest drug dealer in the world. The Company worked with a group of Parsi ship owners to send thousands of chests of excellent product to China every year. They became inconceivably wealthy and inconceivably brutal.

Like all drug dealers, the Company knew it had stumbled on the ultimate product, a product that created its own inexhaustible demand, a perfect market. And they milked it for all it was worth. This is the background to the opium story in Narcopolis.

I've always thought that sex and drugs were Bombay's secret history, hidden between the lines of its official history, which concerns money and glamour. In Narcopolis, the city of intoxication, the secret history is paramount. And I'm suspicious of the new copywriting language associated with Bombay, 'Shanghai-aspirant, maximum city' and so on: it doesn't fit with the city I know. You can sanitise it as much as you like but you can't get rid of the grime.

Tell us a bit about what led you to write this book and what did the shift from poetry to fiction entail?
I wrote this book to create a kind of memorial, to inscribe certain names in stone. As one of the characters says, it is only by repeating the names of the dead that we honour them. I wanted to honour the people I knew in the opium dens, the marginalised, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low; and I wanted to make some record of a world that no longer exists -- except within the pages of a book. Their stories are never told with any kind of dignity.

The character of Dimple, and the way in which you've forefronted a transsexual, is intriguing. Do you think it would shock readers to find an eunuch as a central character? What led you to make
that choice?

Dimple is based on someone I saw in an opium den on Shuklaji Street in 1980 or thereabouts. She was making pipes, briefly, for the owner of the den. She was charismatic and elegant and then she disappeared. I never forgot her.

Dimple is someone who travels between genders; nothing in her life is stable, certainly not identity; and she is a master of the art of transformation. She says, 'Everybody is everything', but she also says that men and women have nothing in common, have so little in common that genuine union between the sexes is impossible, that all we can hope for is cohabitation.

She says men have more in common with males of other species, with chimpanzees, goats and dogs, especially dogs, than with women. The reason Dimple can make these authoritative pronouncements is because she is male and female, a Tiresias-like figure, whose familiarity with both sexes gives her tremendous knowledge.
By making a hijra one of the central characters I was able to look at gender, at sexuality, at the connections and divides between men and women in a way I couldn't otherwise. Why should it shock readers who see hijras on the streets of Bombay every day?

Narcopolis published by Faber and Faber is available in all the leading bookstores. Rs 499

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