Calcutta, Sept. 11: Narcopolis, the debut novel of Kerala-born poet-writer Jeet Thayil, made the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2012 today. The 52-year-old is the only Indian on the shortlist of six, pared down from a longlist of 12.
“I’m absolutely delighted!” Jeet said when The Telegraph contacted him after the shortlist was announced in London by Sir Peter Stothard, chair of judges. “It was a strong longlist and I’m glad to be here,” the Delhi-based author said.
The six authors will be presented with £2,500 each and a specially commissioned hand-bound edition of their book. The Booker winner, to be announced on October 16, will receive another £50,000 (around Rs 44 lakh). The Man Booker Prize for Fiction is a literary prize awarded each year for an original full-length English novel by a citizen of the Commonwealth of Nations, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. The last Indian to win the Booker was Aravind Adiga in 2008, for The White Tiger.
Published by Faber & Faber and distributed in India by Penguin, Narcopolis is a dark, dreamy tale set in the opium dens of Shuklaji Street in Mumbai. It’s a story of drug, sex and horror but also of love, hope and beauty against the backdrop of Mumbai’s journey from the sweet intoxication of opium to the harsh and ugly high of heroin.
In Jeet’s own words, “It also tells you how Bombay (he refuses to use the ‘M’ word, saying it reeks of political intolerance) transformed from a collection of seven malarial islands into India’s financial capital over 40 years — 1800 to 1840. That’s because half-a-dozen Parsi shipowners got together with the British East India Company and shipped thousands of tonnes of opium to China, turning a generation of Chinese into drug addicts.”
Ruchir Joshi, author-filmmaker and columnist, said he was “elated” with the announcement. “It’s fantastic news. Jeet is a great writer and a close friend. What I am even more happy about is the fact that Narcopolis is the sort of book that we Indians can be proud of, it’s not like the exotic writings from India that sometimes win international prizes but are actually quite embarrassing,” he said.
Ruchir and Jeet were among the four authors who read from The Satanic Verses, whose publication is banned in India, after Salman Rushdie was prevented from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival this January.
In an interview to t2 a day after the longlist was announced in July, Jeet said he had thought Narcopolis would never be in the running for any prize, let alone the Booker. “There are many brutal, many cruel passages in the book…. I thought I had sort of disqualified myself, which is why the longlist was such an amazing surprise.”
This year’s Booker longlist, picked from 145 contenders, sprung many surprises, with debut titles and little-known authors elbowing out heavyweights and favourites like Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis.
The shortlist is an interesting mix too — three men, three women, three small publishers and three established ones, two debut novels — Narcopolis and Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse — and a previous Booker winner.
Hilary Mantel, who won the Booker in 2009 for Wolf Hall, was the bookmaker’s favourite for a spot in the 2012 shortlist for the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies. The other three are Swimming Home by Deborah Levy, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng and Umbrella by Will Self.
On Tuesday, the chair of the judges said it was their “power of prose” that clinched it for this set of six. “After re-reading an extraordinary longlist of 12, it was the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose…,” said Sir Stothard.
Jeet’s “power of prose” — the first sentence of Narcopolis famously runs into six-and-a-half pages — was discussed at length when he came to Calcutta last month on t2’s invitation for An Author’s Afternoon. The man who admits to have done “a lot of the drugs mentioned in the book”, said he deliberately wrote long, open-ended, dreamy, inclusive sentences for Narcopolis because one couldn’t bring alive the beautiful cultural experience of opium in short, journalistic lines.
In Shuklaji Street of Narcopolis’s Bombay, they say you introduce only your worst enemy to opium. The “worst enemy” is now India’s best hope for another Booker.
WHAT IS NARCOPOLIS?
Mumbai — or Bombay as Jeet calls it — is the “hero or heroin” of this novel. Starting with
a sentence that runs into
six-and-a-half pages, like a long drag on a carefully prepared opium pipe, it’s a story of drugs, sex and horror but also of love, hope and beauty, set against the backdrop of Mumbai’s journey from the sweet
intoxication of opium to the harsh and ugly high of heroin