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'There is no message in Narcopolis'
Poet Jeet Thayil calls his Booker nomination for his first novel, Narcopolis, "unexpected". It's a tough year for any first-time novelist to compete against the odds created by the combined presence of Hilary Mantel and Will Self on the shortlist. While no one is likely to forget that Mantel's Wolf Hall (to which the current novel Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel) was among the most celebrated Booker winners in recent years, or that Will Self is that rare beast, the author's author, Thayil's debut novel has raised expectations in Indian literary circles for its assurance and intrepidity. Set in Bombay of the 1970s and '80s, Narcopolis is suffused in a haze of opium through which intriguing characters come and go. Fifty three-year-old Thayil, son of veteran journalist TJS George, has never made any secret of the fact that he struggled with addiction and substance abuse for many years. In this interview with TOI-Crest, he talks about the 'unexpected' nomination, the opera he has written and a singular review he once wrote for Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.
What were your first thoughts when you learnt of Narcopolis making it to the Man Booker short-list ? Were you alerted by a phone call?
I received an email from my editor asking me to call as soon as I woke up. I was absolutely thrilled and delighted. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it's a life-changing event for an obscure Indian poet to make the Man Booker shortlist.
Being a first-time novelist, was this somewhat unexpected?
Very much so.
What is your attitude towards the Man Booker, given its colonial subtext and the bad press it sometimes gets for being
too 'elitist' ?
The Man Booker Prize gives writers the kind of respect and attention they rarely receive. As for 'colonial subtext', aren't you bored even to utter that phrase? All writing is elitist. However many times the writer may use four-letter words, and whether he is writing about Maoists or monasteries, he is engaged in an elitist activity.
You have with some conviction said in the past that poets can draw bigger crowds than novelists. Do poets still have that space?
I must have been drunk when I said that. Poets do not draw crowds. They have no space. They are the most deprived of all writer species.
Do writers need addiction? Is there something central to your experiences and the message you try to convey in Narcopolis?
Of course writers don't need addiction. And if that is the message you've gleaned from my novel, I think I have failed utterly. There is no 'message' in Narcopolis. Messages are for hoarding writers, not novelists.
Narcopolis is very much a literary work;by some accounts, a difficult book with its esoteric subject matter and shifting points of view. What was it like to write it? Does it bother you that it may not be seen as accessible?
I always knew it would be a literary novel and therefore not accessible to everyone. I knew that by opening with a six-and-a-half-page sentence I would lose the kind of person who prefers easy reading. They were risks I was willing to take. The reader who gets Narcopolis will be moved by it;many won't, but that is fine.
Tell us something about the opera you wrote, Babur in London. How did it come about?
I was given a residency in Zurich by the Swiss Arts Council to collaborate on an opera with the composer Edward Rushton. Many years later, Babur in London was the result. Unfortunately, because of the fear of future controversy, the Indian tour was cancelled. In India, fear is a tremendous weapon and an effective tool for censorship.
When Arundhati Roy won the Booker, you wrote a full page essay repeating "The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy" across a page and a half in a national magazine. Was that message about Booker hype? How do you see it now?
To clarify, my review was made up of the words 'Arundhathi Roy' repeated over two pages. It was a comment on the fact that she was everywhere at the time, and that everything that could have been said about the book had already been said. The review, if it can be called that, appeared in Gentleman magazine. It was difficult getting it past the editor, but I'm glad I managed to.
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