He is a poet, musician and writer who has got a huge boost now that his debut novel has made it to the shortlist of this year's Man Booker Prize. So you can bet that Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis is fated to move from the fringes towards the main stream of reader’s consciousness.
The book is a hard read but if one manages to get past the prologue and stay invested up to chapter 3 then one gets sucked into the violent, vivid and often unnerving dream and drug laced world of its people and of its city -Mumbai.
In an interview to CNBC-TV18's Anuradha SenGupta, Jeet Thayil, Author of Narcopolis talks about the book and the journey thereafter.
Here is an edited transcript of his comments.
Q: Tell us more about Narcopolis.
A: It is interesting that you said chapter 3 because when I wrote this book I knew, in fact, the prologue would turn off a certain kind of reader. Then they would close the book, set it aside and not proceed which was absolutely fine with me. In fact I look at the prologue as a kind of test. If you can get past it welcome to the book, if not no problem. Pick up another it is a world full of books.
And not all readers are equal, readers are not created equal. Some readers are meant for certain kind of books, others are meant for other kinds of books. Not all readers have to read all books, it is just a fact of it.
Q: You were aware of the fact that you were taking a risk when you were writing the book. What made you feel confident of taking that risk because I would imagine if I had a story to tell I’d like to do it my way and in the form that I choose but I’d like for it to reach a lot of people. So, there is a trade off, isn’t it?
A: Definitely and you are right it is a tremendous risk. I took that risk, that prologue is a risk. It is a risky form because it requires something from the reader, you have to bring something to that book to finish it and if you do finish it I hope that it is rewarding and I think it will reward repeated reading. So I think it is really a question of ambition.
I was looking towards the long-term, I was not looking towards short-term gains. Popularity, on the best seller list and sell a few copies and be forgotten. I knew that this book could find its readership a decade down the line.
Q: Like I said in my introduction to you, once you manage to last and I did, I started caring for the book and I thought I was moved by some of the things that you ended up saying or your characters ended up dealing with in the book. But having said that I must say that in the beginning my sentiment was pretty much what at one point your main character Dimple tells another character Poet Painter and she says, 'I need a translator to understand you.' So will you judge me the reader, harshly if I say that that's how I felt for a long time in the book?
A: If you think that can you imagine what a reader from Denmark might think or reader from England or US might think because this is a book some people have said that should have a glossary because there are constant Urdu, Marathi and Hindi references throughout the book as well as Chinese.
Q: I didn’t mean translate in terms of the words you used or the language you used but in terms of the form, the movement, the way you tell this story, the narrative, all of that. It is not easy, I don’t have the crutches that I normally get and so the question is while not every reader is equal, do I sense a hint of arrogance when you say that, would you judge me harshly if I say that I needed help, intellectual arrogance?
A: Of course not. How can I judge you, it is not possible especially coming from where I come from the last thing I do with anybody in any situation is judged because I have been lower. But when it came to a novel for me I am not a young writer, I am not 18, I am not 28, I am not 38.
Q: You are 53 to be precise.
A: Well 52 at the moment but 53 very soon. I wrote the book I wanted to write. I didn’t write a book thinking 'will this translate with the 25 year old call center worker', I didn’t care about that. I wrote it for the kind of books that I have read and for that kind of reader. I suppose you end up really writing for yourself if you are not wanting to compromise.
Q: What does the tryst with the Booker mean for the destiny of Narcopolis, what was your first reaction when you heard that the book was on the shortlist? You felt just good and happy or did you feel vindicated because this was not a book that everybody got up and said 'we got and we enjoyed and we loved and therefore we are sharing'.
A: In fact the opposite. The initial reviews were uniformly negative and from some reviews that I really thought would have got the book, absolutely didn’t get it, uniformly negative. Then of course the reviews from the UK and US started coming in and they were all positive and soon the Indian reviews also became positive.
What the Man Booker nomination did, the long list and then they shortlisted for it, I thought this book could find its readership in a generation or in 10-15 years. It sped up the process hugely and suddenly people were reading this book who would never have read it, you included. And for that I am incredibly grateful. If it hadn’t been for that I know this book would have remained very obscure in a book shop in the very bottom shelves and before I wrote this, 4 books of poems.
Q: Which not too many people know about?
A: Infact very few people know about. I am an obscure Indian poet and I would have been an obscure Indian novelist and that was fine with me. Then this happened and I had no idea what the Man Booker shortlist meant when it was first announced. It is only now that I am beginning to realize the reach of it and it is not an exaggeration to call it life changing.