The book takes a look at the dens from an outsider's perspective, and then it moves onto give a complete internal understanding of how things actually function in these dens. The people involved, the different folks who visit and each of them has a story of their own. Some of the key characters are the owner of a prominent opium den, a hijra lady who had been sold by her mother when she was young, worked as a prostitute to pay for boarding and then bought her freedom, and now is a opium pipe-maker at the den. The book portrays how the gradual progression to cocaine and heroin occurs from opium, almost unknowingly. They start it as a trial, the owner of the den does not even wish to have anything other than opium, maybe because he believes the rest are too dangerous, or because its a matter of practice. This said, considering the fact that he himself looks towards cocaine for that much needed fix on many days. He almost goes out of business after verbal feuds with those who want him to move on to other substances which are more addictive, and what they believe is more profitable. A sort of conscious businessmen in the midst of all the substance abuse. Towards the end of the book, there is a look at rehabilitation which many are keen on entering, knowing that it shall alone show the way to some sane living. There comes a point when the fears and insecurities start to haunt and then you want to pull back, but by then you are so set in the routine that its difficult to turn back.
There is parallel story of a Chinese immigrant who dies in India of old age, a man famed for his pipes, and his history from being a part of the communist party to fleeing from China to India. He travels in India to finally settle in Mumbai, where the sea makes him experience peace and he decides to call it home. The story is narrated in third person, through the eyes of a foreigner who has come to trace his routes and understand how he holds a strong link to Mumbai.
The book gave me the deepest knowledge about the various names for substances used, be it natural or chemical. The sources they come in from, and the route this follows to reach the addicts. There is a fair bit of local dialects and Hindi used through the text which does render authenticity to the story. It was not a book which I would pick up and read again, but it is a book which I would suggest if someone wants to know the many names and many ways opium, cocaine and heroin move about and the close community which depends on it for their survival in every way.
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