Tata Literature Live! – Day 2

Right, time to rewind. This is from the second day of Tata Literature Live (November 1). Here’s the diary that was printed in DNA, and below are the Quotes and Notes of the day.

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At the end of a session at Tata Literature Live!, someone asked novelists Chandrahas Choudhury and Jeet Thayil to name one book that had changed their lives. An audience member was overheard, murmuring, “No Indian writer ever changes an Indian writer’s lives,” and true enough, both Thayil and Choudhury’s picks were foreigners.

Considering the enthusiasm with which audiences and panellists have been participating in this festival, it’s worth wondering why the sons (and daughters) of the Indian soil who write books don’t ultimately count for us.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra had one answer: we simply don’t remember our own creativity. Mehrotra presented a crash course in Indian poetry in which he read out his translations of Kabir’s poems from 15th century and sparkling little works by Prakrit poets from the 1st century. He expressed amazement that we’ve chosen to forget these poets, despite the beauty and modernity of their verse. “This kind of forgetfulness is unique to India,” Mehrotra said drily.

Thayil offered another explanation for our reticence when it comes to Indian literature. “We are the last colonials. We still need the white man to tell us what’s good in our culture,” he said, and spoke about how Indian critics first panned his novel Narcopolis and then praised it after American and British critics praised it.

One white man certainly felt some desi pressure and he was literary agent David Godwin. During his session, one audience member complained that Godwin had rejected his manuscript and another demanded to know what kind of advances the literary agent is able to secure for his clients. (“Anything between 3000 and a one million pounds,” was Godwin’s reply.) Those hoping to attract Godwin’s attention will be happy to know Godwin is committed to “haggling with publishers” for his authors and is not planning on writing any more books.

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Quotes and Notes

From First Book Blues with Miriam Batliwala, Yasmeen Premji, David Godwin and Rajini Vaidyanathan

No idea how good a writer Miriam Batliwala is, but the woman is a livewire on stage. She’s infectious, talks nineteen to the dozen and even though she derails the conversation, you want her to just go on and on. You’d never guess Batliwala can’t see. There’s a confidence in her that you simply don’t expect to see in someone who has any kind of impediment, let alone something so serious. An absolute delight.

When Batliwala’s editor, a young man, read her book (Insight), he went on and on about how he couldn’t believe she had done all the things that she had done. “Well, you better believe it,” she told him after a point. “Now, carry on reading and finish the book.”

David Godwin:

“The book was like a magnet. It drew me to her.” (on The God of Small Things)

“I’m not a writer. I’ve written a book, but that’s not the same thing.”

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From 2000 Years of Indian Poetry with Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Gerson da Cunha

Mehrotra reading from his translation of Prakrit poetry. Date: 1st century. These are dramatic poems, about love and sexuality and most of them are spoken by women. Mehrotra’s amazement that we’ve chosen to forget these voices and not marvel at the wit and cleverness of this poetry.

“This kind of forgetfulness is unique to India.”

The poems are mostly tiny, fragmentary. But certain phrases and images — they stick.

“Hair like roughed feathers.”

“Having played the man, you know how we suffer.”

“The way he stared, I kept covering myself. Not that I wanted him to look anywhere else.”

It’s also how Mehrotra reads it — simply, crisply and with such a real, heartfelt intensity. As though the woman who is speaking in the poem is inside him, just past that beard, beaky nose and white hair.

The poem about the man who parts the fingers of his palm while the woman pouring the drinking water slows the stream to a trickle. What we do to lengthen that moment. It’s so beautiful, so subtle. Can’t help but remember Nargis and Raj Kapoor from the water scene in Jagte Raho (?).

AKM: “Each time I read them, I’m surprised they left nothing unsaid.”

“He groped me for the underwear that wasn’t there. I saw the boy fluster.” All of us in the auditorium burst in to laughter and you can hear the difference in tonality between men and women. The men sound embarrassed; the women, delighted.

AKM read the poem in which a mother consoles her daughter that the river and her friends will help her pass messages to her lover and that marriage isn’t the end of fun. He paints a picture of a society that’s like a sorority in many ways — elder women who help the younger ones to figure out affairs, commiserate with them about having to sleep with their husbands. It’s such a far cry from the cases of wives tortured by mothers in-law and daughters rejected by mothers. Sigh.

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From 10 Ways A Novel Can Change Your Life with Jeet Thayil (JT), Chandrahas Choudhury (CC) and Rahul Bose (RB).

JT: “I think poetry has the same impact that prayer does.”

CC: Novels = “Deeper immersion in life.”

A novel is a sandwich. The story is the filling and the reader and author are the two pieces of bread.

JT: Novelists are boring. “Poets are the ones dancing on tables at 4am.”

“We are the last colonials. We still need the white man to tell us what’s good in our culture. Or bad.”

“People actually read the book (Narcopolis). That was really thrilling for me.”

CC’s aunt was scandalised that he wrote the “racy, graphic bits” of Arzee the Dwarf. She called up CC’s mum and asked, “How did Chandrahas know how to write all this? He isn’t married.”

When Rahul Bose was asked by a reporter about the masturbation scene in English, August, he said that the director (Dev Benegal) had slipped him a date rape drug and then made him do things and so he had no idea about how that masturbation scene came about.

Really, Dev. Date rape drug and Rahul Bose? Tsk tsk.

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Tata Literature Live! – Day 1

I’m doing snippety little pieces on Tata Literature Live! for DNA. Day One’s big attraction was the evening ceremony in which Sir Vidia Naipaul was given a lifetime achievement award, so that’s what I wrote about. Because really, who knew that Sir Vidia was a marshmallow about his pet cat (named Augustus, who had to be put down last year. RIP). Below the piece are notes and quotes jotted down at some of the sessions I attended.

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The death notice that Naipaul placed in The Times last year

Sir VS Naipaul, Nobel laureate, is best known for being the enfant terrible of literature. In the past, his opinions have raised the hackles of a wide range of people, including feminists, patriotic Indians and Muslims. But the Naipaul who won the lifetime achievement award at Mumbai’s Tata Literature Live! last night was a gentler, more vulnerable man – one who needed help to get on stage, who looked to his wife Nadira repeatedly for encouragement and who was reduced to tears at the memory of his pet cat, Augustus. It wasn’t the only time in the course of the evening that Naipaul broke down. When asked to speak about A House For Mister Biswas, which drew upon episodes from Naipaul’s father’s life, the author broke down.

Recalling his Nobel prize, Naipaul said that he had feared that the “resentment” caused by his opinions would cost him the prize even though his name had been recommended repeatedly. When he finally was awarded the prize in 2001, however, he played it cool. “You’ve heard of my little spot of good luck,” he said to author Farrukh Dhondy when the latter called to congratulate him on the Nobel.

Naipaul candidly admitted that writing for him has always been challenging. “There’s always struggle in writing,” he said. Speaking about Area of Darkness, which was published in 1964 and caused furore because of Naipaul’s unromantic and critical view of India, he said that the India he saw in 1962 was “full of distress” and he found this “troubling” because it took him time to figure out how he would knit his experiences into a book. Some of Naipaul’s characteristic steeliness was in evidence when he said, of Area of Darkness, “A 50 year old book has a life and vigour of its own, and you have to accept it.”

Quotes and Notes

From Has Fiction Failed Mumbai? with Sidharth Bhatia, Altaf Tyrewala, Jeet Thayil, Cyrus Mistry and chair Naresh Fernandes.

Bhatia: Themes in Mumbai novels can be boiled down to nostalgia, diaspora and diasporic nostalgia. “I think non-fiction has crept ahead.”

Mistry: Journalism does something very different from fiction. “I don’t think the novelist has a role.”

Thayil: “The point about fiction is that nostalgia is part of the territory.”

“I would ask if Mumbai has failed fiction.”

“To say that Bombay is a city that reads, that’s stretching it a bit.” What the city reads, according to Thayil, is The Times of India.

Tyrewala: “The tone of literature is changing. … It’s an exciting time to be in the city.”

Mistry: “I don’t really feel like writing about Bombay anymore.”

Thayil said he was surprised by how much he remembered of 1980s’ Mumbai. In the middle of him almost waxing about the quality of light in opium dens, someone’s phone rang. “Are we being invaded?” Thayil asked. (The tune was from the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now.) So the street of 40-odd opium dens is now a set of identical shops with a McDonald’s at the end of the street. It was McMumbai. “It was a readymade metaphor. I didn’t even have to make it up.”

Bhatia: There’s been a change in Mumbai’s mythology. From the city where anyone can make it, it’s become a city for the rich.

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Sir Vidia, in conversation with Farrukh Dhondy

“I had a very hard time starting. I knew about writing essays. That kind of writing was not writing for books.” And so he kept writing, looking for “language that might seem fitting for a book.” He suggested his style is reminiscent of 16th-century Castilian: “Sharp, and spare and pointed and full of pictures.”

“The process of learning to write came with the discovery of material.”

“One can be over-interviewed.”

When Dhondy asked about A House for Mister Biswas, Naipaul broke down and couldn’t speak. He looked to his wife, who said something to Dhondy. I think she suggested they move on to other books.

“The thing about writing is that you’ve got to keep on.”

“Reality by itself never makes a book. That comes from the fictive element.”

A travel book “represents a discovery.”

Augustus the cat was a rescue from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Nadira Naipaul told Dhondy that they should get Naipaul a cat for his birthday. Naipaul named the cat Augustus because he was the emperor after the collapse of the Roman republic. Augustus lived for 13 years and had to be put down last year.

 

Booker Special – Part 2

Now for the weird ones.

Will Self’s Umbrella

Most likely to drive you insane

The politically-correct word for three of the novels in this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist is “literary”, which translates in plain English to “weird”. Not that weird can’t mean wonderful. This year, the judges clearly wanted readers to remember that literature is not simply timepass, to use a bit of Bombay-speak. If the reader perseveres with a well-crafted experimental novel, they’re rewarded with a story that’s told with all the flourish of a brilliant magic trick. Because hey presto! along with a top hat worth of literary craftiness, there’s the white rabbit of a poignant story.

Curiously enough, Will Self’s critically-beloved novel Umbrella and Rihanna’s chartbusting song with the same title do have something in common. Initially, both sound like complete gibberish. “I’man ape man, I’m an ape man…Along comes Zachary, along from the porter’s lodge, where there’s a trannie by the kettle and the window is cracked open” makes about as much sense as “Gyeah Rihanna, good girl gone bad, take three action, no clouds in my storms, I hydroplane into fame.” But after this initial resonance, the two umbrellas diverge. While Rihanna’s lyrics end up to be nonsense, Self’s opens into a bewildering but brilliant, Modernist novel.

Whether or not Umbrella wins the Booker prize, the novel is most likely to join Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake on the shelf that houses books people own but don’t read; because owning them makes us look smart, but reading them makes us feel stupid.

The novel is 397 pages of serpentine sentences and inventive wordplay. There are few paragraph breaks and no chapters. A single sentence could contain as many as three time periods and as many perspectives. Rather than a stream of consciousness, it’s a river riddled with undercurrents.Umbrella doesn’t just demand patience; you need to be alert to the subtlest click of Self’s storytelling levers to follow the plot.

Three time frames lie unspooled in the novel. Zachary Busner is an elderly, retired psychiatrist, roaming around contemporary London and remembering his past. Starring prominently in his memories is Audrey Death, who contracted encephalitis lethargica but was misdiagnosed as a mental patient and admitted in 1922. Audrey, whose surname goes through many mutations, has a wealth of experiences locked inside her twitching body and numbed-by-drugs mind, including childhood memories and working in Woolwich Arsenal during the war. In 1971, Busner chances upon her and is struck by the idea that it might be possible to wake seemingly catatonic patients like her who were encephalitic rather than psychiatric cases. A ward full of “enkies” is given a new drug named L-DOPA and briefly, the enkies wake up.

Umbrella slithers between the memories of Zachary, Audrey and her two brothers, creating a labyrinth of a novel. It takes about 100 pages to get the hang of Self’s infuriatingly complicated style, which is an ode to the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. If you’ve survived till this point, you’ll notice the meandering narrative is strangely compelling. It takes another 100 pages to get caught up in the memories of the different characters and figure out that the slippery monologues aren’t just Self trying to add a little gravitas to his profile and establish himself as cleverer than you, the reader. The Modernist emphasis on consciousness and form allows Self to expertly shuffle between the different perspectives in Umbrella.

At the end, using Busner as his mouthpiece, Self explains why he chose this particular form for Audrey’s story: “…embodied in these poor sufferers’ shaking frames was the entire mechanical age — that just as schizophrenics’ delusions partook of modish anxieties, so the post-encephalitics’ akinesia and festination had been the stop/start, the on/off… of a two-step with technology.” If you have the patience to get past Self’s determination to be difficult, you’ll find in a novel that masterfully winds every raggedy end into a neat, expertly-executed knot.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home

Most likely to turn you off nudes

A blue mouse, stones with holes in them, a boy who might be a ghost, a girl who seems to have an aversion to clothes — these are a few of the spectres that surface at different moments in Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home. Levy is well-known as a poet and a playwright and her different literary talents all come into play in Swimming Home.

With its loops and leaps in logic, reading the novel is like entering someone else’s — Nina’s? — dream. The poet Joe Jacobs has come to holiday in the south of France with his wife Isabel, his daughter Nina and two friends. This predictable summer holiday plot is turned on its head when one day, the holidayers find a naked woman in their swimming pool. This is Kitty Finch.

Kitty is beautiful, strange and a poet. She tightropes between chaos and clarity, and draws everyone’s attention. Nina is fascinated by her oddness. Joe, a philanderer, is attracted to her and not even the knowledge that Kitty is a fan who has stalked him, makes him wary. In the neighbouring villa is an old woman named Madeleine, who views Kitty’s strange charisma with a mixture of fear, envy and hatred. She recognises the danger that Kitty presents to the precarious, paper-thin order of everyone’s lives. But her relationship with Kitty is far from simple. The year before, it was Madeleine whose complaint led to Kitty being put in a mental asylum where they subjected her to electrotherapy. Kitty says they “burned” the stories in her head.

Swimming Home is all about dissembling and disclosures. Nina, treated like an innocent child starts menstruating, as though her body is owning up to the maturity that she’s been forced to develop because of her parents’ unconventional marriage. Cracks appear in Isabel’s facade of being the superheroic combination of working woman, mother and wife. Her husband and daughter both turn to Kitty in their time of need.

Levy is known for experimental and disturbing work, and Swimming Home shows her poetic, dramatic and novelistic skills in fine form. Her cast of characters elegantly evade neat categorisations like “good” and “bad”, or even “pleasant” and “unpleasant”. Portents — like the stones with holes in them, that can be strung to become a pendant or weigh a drowning man down — pop up, but no one seems to notice them. The past slips into the present, weighing it down with sadness. In the epilogue, an adult Nina says, “as much as I try to make the past keep still and mind its manners, it moves and murmurs with me through the day.” This is dream from which there’s no waking up.

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis

Most likely to make you take up smoking

Here’s an unexpected nugget of information: Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is the most grounded of the trio of weird novels. Next to the dreamy loops of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home and Will Self’s 397 pages of modernism and encephalitic lethargica in Umbrella, the opium haze of Narcopoliscomes across as positively normal.

Set in Bombay, Narcopolis is a trip down memory lane, or Shuklaji Street as Thayil’s narrator knows it, where most of the novel is set. Made up of many meandering stories, Narcopolis is what one man remembers of his and the city’s past. Using the form of the novel, instead of intoxicants, Thayil recaptures the high of an opium-induced trip.

The narrator conjures to life Dimple, the eunuch; Lee, a mysterious Chinese man who adopts Dimple; Rashid, the owner of an opium den, and Rumi, an unhappily-married man who hates middle-class morality. Shuklaji Street is a gallery of oddities and weirdos — eunuchs, junkies, alcoholics, murderers, intellectuals — all of whom seem strange and surreal. It’s squalid and yet charmed, this contained, little world of narcotic yarns. To Rashid’s opium den come sharp minds that want to be dulled and lulled, lest they cut themselves.

Thayil’s addicts do many vile things in Narcopolis, but there is something vaguely quixotic about them. The sober, with their unforgiving and unadulterated wakefulness, often seem myopic and naïve in contrast. While Thayil’s characters wrestle with their addictions, decades roll along and Bombay changes. All that’s ultimately left is a narrator, his memories and his pipe.

Some of the stories in Narcopolis, like Dimple’s, are unforgettable. A few, like the interlude in China, seem misfit even though Lee is a wonderful character. Rumi — who hurtles between the acceptable and the deviant, and unravels dangerously — is perhaps the least convincing and most unpleasant of Narcopolis’s residents.

The joy of reading this novel lies in the language. The words in each sentence are selected with a poet’s precision. Thayil plucks references as cheerfully from Jorge Luis Borges as he does from Dev Anand. This is a novelist who hears RD Burman hollering out for Monica his darling and finds a trail of breadcrumbs that lead to Saint Monica, the patron saint of alcoholics. He’s as comfortable writing about horrible sex as he is with the innocent pleasure of enjoying a snack while watching the sunset at Chowpatty. Narcopolis is not without its flaws, but the storyteller doesn’t let go of the reader’s hand, no matter where the opium takes him.

Enough has been written despairing at the first sentence of Narcopolis, which goes on for a good six pages. It’s worth pointing out that it’s an expertly-constructed sentence that coils lazily like the smoke from the pipe that Thayil’s narrator smokes while telling his tale. It’s paced beautifully by precise and careful use of punctuation, which lends it a rhythm and cadence. Follow the yellow brick road of commas and you won’t lose track or feel short of breath. That first sentence is a neat indication of the nature of this novel — it’s a poetic, nostalgia trip that is wistful for a past that is invisible until seen through this smoky haze of memory.

The Mag This Week

Reviews of Pao: The Anthology of Comics Vol 1 by Joanna Lobo and my review of Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died A Lot. The latter is the latest adventure in the life of the literary detective, Thursday Next. I’d hoped to put this review next to a review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth since both books are about spies who go about doing literary things. But then the Booker shortlist came out and I had to shuffle things around a little.
There’s also an interview with Jeet Thayil, which is mandatory this week if you’re an Indian publication. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’s actually been shortlisted for the Booker, I suspect some of us would find it in ourselves to feel sorry for how many same-sounding questions Thayil’s had to answer. I’m among those journalists who are extremely grateful that Thayil made an effort to make his answers sound different.

The text of the interview and my book review are given below (in that order).

Interview with Jeet Thayil

He’s been described as a poet, a musician and a performer. Now, he’s also a novelist who has the distinction of his debut novel, Narcopolis being included in the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker prize. Thayil describes himself as a writer, “because that’s what I do on a daily basis.” Years ago, Thayil had written mockingly about his own work in a poem titled “Malayalam Ghazal”: “Jeet, such drama with the scraps you know.” The “scraps” in case of Narcopolis are the tales and lives of junkies who gathered at Rashid’s opium den in Mumbai’s Shuklaji Street back in the days when the city was Bombay. It’s a dark world, infested with slippery menace, shifting shadows and long sentences.

Was it a challenge to write Narcopolis? Did your experience of writing poetry help?
It helps because writing poetry is about reticence and compression. It makes you examine every thing you put into a sentence and it makes you take things out.

For me, Narcopolis seemed to be a poet’s novel because the storytelling lingers more on the telling than the tale. Would you talk a little about your use of language and plotting the novel?
I don’t know if I agree that it’s a poet’s novel. For one thing, it does not dismiss conventional logic and chronology. It takes the logical and chronological on, but in an original way, or so I hope. And there is certainly a storyline in Narcopolis, though the line digresses in the manner of a nineteenth century Russian novel. In that way it is absolutely conventional. It’s only unconventional when you think of it in a purely Indian context. It is a novel that makes sense in terms of structure only when you get well into Book Three. It is a challenging book: it expects the reader to put in some work. Which, in today’s context, is a risky thing to do, but there you have it.

You’ve said in past interviews that there are parts of Narcopolis that are based on reality. Do you think knowing there’s a plinth of reality helps to appreciate the novel?
It absolutely does. Even a dream sequence should stand on the reality plinth, otherwise it’s just language, and I don’t think you can sustain a book of 300 pages on just language.

Did you have a reader in mind while writing the novel?
If I have an ideal reader in mind, it’s a reader like myself. I’ve been a reader my whole life and I’m not interested in the easy read, unless I’m on a plane, in which case all I’m interested in is thrillers. I like language with some meat, I like vivid atmosphere and characters, and I want to be able to discover something new when I read a novel again.

Is it satisfying to see Narcopolis getting this kind of appreciation?
Considering the initial, uncomprehending Indian reviews, yes it certainly is.

Are you writing another novel?
I’m almost done. Working title: The Book Of Chocolate Saints.

Book review: The Woman Who Died A Lot

Well before Ian McEwan came up with MI5 operative Serena Frome and entangled her in a bundle of stories, Jasper Fforde had created a parallel world, the star of which was the literary detective, Thursday Next. She was a literary detective whose job involved preserving law and order in the world of literature, or Bookworld. While some may argue that it really isn’t fair to compare detective work in literary fiction with the dramatic possibilities of the comic fantasy genre, we must confess that, fond as we are of McEwan, our hearts and bookmarks belong to Thursday Next.

Thursday was introduced to readers in The Eyre Affair, which tells you the real reason there was a fire at Mr Rochester’s home in Jane Eyre. Over the next five novels, Thursday had rollicking adventures in Bookworld, sorting out plots and saving the world within and outside books.

If you haven’t read any Fforde before, rejoice because a whole new world of puns, wordplay and comic genius awaits you. If you have read Fforde before, then you’ll be happy to know that The Woman Who Died A Lotshows Fforde is as cuckoo as ever. Also, he seems to have had his fill of Bookworld. This time, he’s anchored the story firmly in Swindon and dropped hints about a new realm called DRM, or Dark Reading Matter, which is also the title of the next Thursday Next novel.

For now, though, to Swindon we go, where Thursday lives with her family. Since her last adventure left Thursday with a walking stick and many aches, Thursday has a new job: she’s a librarian. This means her deputies include a woman who dresses in library camouflage gear (pants and a jacket with bookshelves printed on them) and a man who, as a result of bomb blast, has paragraphs from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel permanently inked on his face (“at least it gave him something to read while shaving”). However, there’s more than unreturned books and library fines upsetting Thursday’s routine.

The evil Goliath Corporation wants Thursday dead and has sent an army of highly-intelligent android killers after her. Thursday’s son has got a letter in the mail informing him he’s going to kill someone in a couple of days. God has said he’s going to send a pillar of cleansing fire in order to make an example of his divine awesomeness and, despite the damage this will cause in Swindon, He is not open to negotiation. (Ultimately, it falls upon Thursday to solve the smiting problem as well.) As if all this wasn’t enough, Britain is facing a crisis: “The nation’s stupidity — usually discharged on a harmless drip feed of minor bungling — had now risen far beyond the capacity of the nation to dispose of it in a safe and sensible fashion.”

In a nutshell: there’s not a boring moment in The Woman Who Died A Lot.

This, however, doesn’t mean the novel is a breezy read, particularly if you are not familiar with Fforde’s version of the world. Even if you’re armed with the background, The Woman Who Died A Lot can be confusing at times, especially since most of the characters are themselves confused by the events. Three parallel plots run through the novel and it’s a wonder Fforde’s mind wasn’t scrambled. Clones, memory stealers, dodos, neanderthals, illegal drugs — they’re all here in Fforde’s Swindon. Take your time and don’t be shy of going back a few pages to figure out what the hell is going on. Because for all its bizarre antics, this Swindon is a wonderful place and Thursdays is a delight.

The Booker Shortlist

The shortlist for the Man Booker prize is out and it includes Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (which I loved) and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (which I wrote about here, sorta). The piece below was came out yesterday.

Thayil’s Narcopolis in Booker Shortlist

The Man Booker Prize’s love affair with debut novels by Indian authors continues.

On Tuesday, in London, the six novels shortlisted for the £50,000 prize were named and Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis is one of them. Thayil, 53, is the seventh Indian author to be selected in a Booker shortlist since the prize was instituted in 1969 for the best original, full-length novel in English by an author from one of the Commonwealth countries or the Republic of Ireland.

The other five in the shortlist this year are Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Umbrella by Will Self, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng. Sir Peter Stothard, the editor of a prestigious literary magazine and the chair of the Booker panel, said of the shortlist, “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.”

Unlike last year when the emphasis was on what the judges termed “readability” and critics interpreted as populist, this year’s selection has been praised for applauding works that are more experimental and radical. Had the criterion for this year’s Booker shortlist been stories that zip along, Narcopolis would probably not have made the cut.

Thayil’s novel, which was rejected by a number of Indian publishers before being picked up by Faber and Faber, is an intoxicating and unromantic meander through time and gloomy opium dens in a grimy, dark part of Mumbai. The critical response was divided with some accusing Thayil of self-indulgence and others praising the novel for its poetic quality.

In the past, Thayil has published and edited a number of collections of poetry. He is also a performance poet and musician. Thayil has a reputation for attracting controversy. Most recently, he was among the writers who read extracts from The Satanic Verses at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival to protest Salman Rushdie’s absence. Rushdie cancelled plans of attending the event when he received death threats.

The Booker prize, however, considers “texts not reputations”, according to Sir Peter. While it was a surprise entry into the longlist, the gambling company Ladbrokes had backed Narcopolis being included in the shortlist. In the race for the ultimate prize, however, the novel is very much the dark horse. At present, Bringing Up the Bodies and Umbrella are the frontrunners. The odds being against Narcopolis doesn’t bother Thayil. When asked how it felt to know Narcopolis had been selected for the shortlist, Thayil told DNA, “It was a strong longlist this year. I’m absolutely delighted.”

The Man Booker prize winner will be announced on October 16, in London.