Narcopolis is a first-rate literary achievement. The author's lucid and versatile prose style bespeaks mastery of language, and lends itself to finding the richness and value in the surreal, the mystical, the natural, the haunted, the stuff of vivid dreams and hallucinations, and occasionally collides with the world of the restless dead. Before all else, however, though its words are well-chosen, it's sentences well-wrought, and its paragraphs mesh neatly from one illuminating, sometimes beautiful, page to another, Narcopolis is about the brutally chaotic meaninglessness of life in Bombay, the enormous city now known as Mumbai.
If there is a character whose life typifies the poverty, chaos, and unthinkable suffering of Bombay, it is Dimple. Her real name is something else that she's long forgotten, having been given away by her mother when she was six or seven. While the name Dimple seems feminine enough, one suitably coupled with our use of the pronoun "her," this is misleading. Dimple, by whatever name, was born a boy, but after being given away or sold, who knows, when she reached age eight or nine her scrotum and penis were cut off, a sort of double castration suitable to an over-determined eunuch, someone who has been surgically designated to live out her days as a prostitute. If her customers are kind, they will apply lubricant before using her rectum as a vagina. She spends the rest of her working day preparing and serving pipes to those who frequent the opium den that shares a floor with her brothel.
In spare moments, Dimple teaches herself to read, just because she likes to, and she smokes opium, snorts cocaine, and eventually learns to appreciate heroin. In time, the dissolute life for which she was foredoomed takes its toll and her beauty fades. It's true that Dimple didn't have to do drugs, or she might at least have exercised moderation, say after the fashion of her friend, old Mr. Lee. But if we don't delude ourselves, we can see that the escape provided by narcotics was a truly rational response to the horrors of Dimple's biography and the world in which she lived it out.
Dimple knew that there were other ways to live, but nothing better was available to her. She wondered why others, especially the young who were whole, well nourished, nicely clothed, had access to as much quality education as anyone might want, and who had the love and protection of their parents did drugs much as she did. They, she imagined, could find meaning and fulfillment in the world as it was. If not in school, family, or work, then there were certainly enough religions whose tenets were waiting to be warmly embraced: Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, Jainism, Coptic Christian, and no doubt others not mentioned. Everyone seemed to have a religion, many practiced them dutifully, but in the end it was all quite perfunctory, myth and ceremony but nothing uncorrupted and substantial to fill the void. When Rumi, indulged son of the wealthy Muslim Rashid, was given a choice between drug rehab and prison, he likened it to a choice between gonorrhea and syphilis.
Perhaps this is the most that one can expect in a socially disorganized, thoroughly corrupt city where, in fact, the only sacred institution is the market, for drugs, people, entertainment, the necessities of life, certainty as to your gender, avoiding a sudden plunge into abysmal poverty, where everything, including the most horrible, is possible for a price. A city of twenty-five million in a failed nation caught up in the accelerating, expanding, all-pervasive process of globalization that got going with a vengeance in the 1970's, the same time as the beginning of Narcopolis. If this is the source of the brutally chaotic meaninglessness of life in Bombay or Mumbai -- whatever -- Narcopolis may be a glimpse of our future. For a non-fiction version see Katherine Boo's ethnography Behind the Beautiful Forevers.