Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, described by The Independent as ‘an outstanding debut novel’, dips its roots into the Mumbai underbelly and spins a a tale of lust and addiction, dreams and death. “The ingenuity of Thayil’s novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe,” Salil Tripathi says in his review in The Independent. Kevin Rushby says in The Guardian, “Narcopolis is a blistering debut that can indeed stand proudly on the shelf next to Burroughs and De Quincey.”
The book, much to its author’s joy, has also made it to the longlist for the Man Booker prize. However, in a short Q&A with Firstpost, Thayil was modest about his book making it to the longlist and said he was only looking to find a way to honour the marginalised, who don’t usually make it to an English novel.
Q. What does a recognition like the Booker mean to you?
A. When you set out to write a novel you don’t think about prizes, or at least I didn’t. But once it’s done, it’s another story. I thought, because of the nature of the novel, that the Booker would be out of the question. I was very happy to be surprised by the longlist.
Q. What is the story behind Narcopolis? What drew you to the subject?
A. I wanted to find a way of honoring the poor and marginalized, the voiceless, the crushed, the addicted, the dead; in short, the kind of people who are called the lowest of the low, and who don’t usually find themselves portrayed in an Indian novel in English.
Q. How important or big a role, does Mumbai as a city with a distinctive bearing on its people, play in your novel?
A. Narcopolis is an unauthorized biography of Bombay, the portrait of a vanished city and a memorial to a lost way of life.
Q. Mumbai is a city that witnessed numerous creative expressions and interpretations in the way of books, films, articles – were you influenced by any of these?
A. I’ve always thought that sex and drugs were Bombay’s secret history, hidden between the lines of its official history, which concerns money and glamour. In the city of Narcopolis, every character is an addict of some kind. Most are drug addicts, but there are also violence addicts, god addicts, sex addicts, beauty addicts. For those in the world of the book, addiction is the only means of exaltation and of escape.
Q. The Amazon brief about your book likens it to Baudelaire’s engagement with what would be dismissed as disturbing in popular literary aesthetics. Would you, yourself, agree to the comparison? If yes, why does the dark, the macabre fascinate you?
A. As a character in Narcopolis says, ‘If you want to make something genuine in this climate you have to think about indolence and brutality. Also: unintentional comedy.’ I’m suspicious of the novel that paints India in soft focus, a place of addled nostalgia and loving elders, of monsoons and mangoes and spices. That idea has little or no connection to the country I know. The grotesque, the disturbing, and the macabre may be a more accurate way to equal India as a subject.