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Booker nomination came as a surprise: Thayil

July 31, 2012 13:34 IST

The Booker long-list nomination came as a surprise to Kerala-born poet-novelist Jeet Thayil who says his selected novel Narcopolis, which talks of opium dens and heroin addiction in Mumbai, is a secret history of the city.

"Yes, the Booker long-list nomination surprised me...An award is important in the sense that it is recognition for the work the writer has done, but, back at the desk, no award will reduce the usual anxiety," the 53-year old writer told PTI.

Narcopolis found a place among the 12 books long-listed for this year's 2012 Booker Prize. The list was announced last week by the Man Booker Prize committee in London. The shortlist of six authors will be announced on September 11, and the winner on October 16.

Narcopolis, published by Faber and Faber, is a rich, chaotic, hallucinatory dream of a novel that captures the Bombay of the 1970s in all its compelling squalor. With a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, it is a journey into a sprawling underworld written in electric and utterly original prose.

For Thayil, a self-confessed former drug addict, Narcopolis is not an autobiographical first novel.

"There are enough of those in the world and I didn't want to add to the list. But it is personal in the sense that there is something at stake, something genuine and human," he says.

Thayil describes his book as a 'secret history of Bombay' and the city's drug underworld as a Narcopolis.

"Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I'm the one who's telling it and you don't know who I am, let me say that we'll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there's time enough not to hurry...," Thayil says in his book.

He writes of Shuklaji Street in old Bombay. "In Rashid's opium room the air is thick and potent. A beautiful young woman leans to hold a long-stemmed pipe over a flame, her hair falling across her dark eyes. Around her, men sprawl and mutter in the gloom, each one drifting with his own tide. Here, people say that you introduce only your worst enemy to opium.

"Outside, stray dogs lope in packs. Street vendors hustle. Hookers call for custom through the bars of their cages as their pimps slouch in doorways in the half-light. There is an underworld whisper of a new terror: the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, whose victims are the nameless, invisible poor. There are too many of them to count in this broken city."

Thayil found as "flattering but inaccurate" the Guardian's description that Narcopolis can stand proudly on the shelf next to William Burroughs' Junky or Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium.

The Independent wrote that the ingenuity of Narcopolis lies in how Thayil has 'squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society'.
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