When a book goes booker

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Narcopolis is one of six contenders for the 2012 Man Booker prize and Jeet Thayil is both elated and vindicated, says Ayan Meer

Prized moment Jeet Thayil
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IT IS often the characteristic of good authors to dispel the image their readers might create for them. The affable and poised man living in a cosy Defence Colony flat does not fit the stereotype of the addict-turned-novelist that emerges from the pages of Narcopolis, a novel chronicling the opium-induced tribulations of lost souls in 1970s Bombay. As commentators wonder whether shortlisting for the 2012 Man Booker Prize a self-proclaimed “unknown poet” publishing a first novel was deserved or not, Jeet Thayil is candid enough to admit how proud and happy he is. “I’m not going to pretend to be cool about it,” he says.

In Narcopolis, all the characters echo Thayil’s past. “I wanted to show the grim, brutal reality of the Bombay I knew,” claims the author, “you don’t usually see that in books.” From Dom Ullis, the narrator and Thayil’s alter ego, to Dimple, the saint-like hijra prostitute finding solace in opium, the characters in Narcopolis share the same addiction, and the same sense of marginality and imprisonment within the walls of Shuklaji Street’s opium room.

It was important for Thayil to translate into writing the specific high and heightened awareness produced by opium. “As soon as you close your eyes, you are dreaming,” he says. “In a book about opium, you can’t have short sentences, they have to be long and dreamy.” Thus, despite the realistic focus on Bombay, Thayil constantly moves between reality and dream, the opium smoke blurring the line between the two.

This interweaving and the alternating narrators — the main one being an opium pipe, omnisciently inhaling the protagonists’ feelings — make Narcopolis challenging and very ambitious for a first novel. “I had nothing to lose,” says Thayil, “and I wasn’t going to compromise to get many happy readers”. Flattered by the comparisons to William Burroughs, Roberto Bolaño or Thomas De Quincey, he is also happy — thanks to the Booker Prize shortlist — to force himself back into Indian bookshelves, with a book that he is certain “nobody [had] read, and nobody wanted to read.”

Indeed, despite his firm refusal of the “Indian writer” label, Thayil is very willing to thumb his nose at the new national zeitgeist: “There is a new kind of jingoism in cities in India, a form of triumphalism that doesn’t accept any criticism — so I expected the negative reception here.”

Thayil seems to take malicious delight precisely in being read in India, offering a different and unapologetic view of Bombay’s past. The defining characteristic of Narcopolis and of its author might, in fact, very well be irony, the irony of the protagonists’ journey, but also the auto-irony that Jeet Thayil seems to embrace, in order to distance himself from the eventful life he has lived.

WHAT STRIKES a chord when reading Narcopolis is essentially the melancholic voice of the narration, reminiscent of an idiosyncratic world which has disappeared, and which has been forgotten. “I wrote this book to honour people and places I knew,” Thayil explains, yet when asked if this novel was a way to put that life behind him, he retorts, “They are not behind me, they are still very much part of me.” Narcopolis gives a voice to ghosts, treading on the margins of an author’s story and of a city’s history. In the book, Newton Xavier — painter and visitor of Narcopolis’ opium room — claims that “an addict is like a saint”. Thayil honours these marginal ghosts posthumously, almost portraying them as martyrs on the altar of modernity.

Did his writing process ultimately have a cathartic purpose? “It was actually the exact opposite,” he says, “I could not write anything after finishing it. I felt dirty.”

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