In a few weeks from now, the Man Booker prize will be announced at London's famous Guildhall with a live telecast on the BBC. Among this year's literary heavyweights Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Alison Moore, Will Self and Tan Twan Eng shortlisted for the 'Oscars of literary awards' is Kerala-born writer Jeet Thayil, 53, whose first novel, Narcopolis, is a serious contender to win the prize. While one can't tell what the judges will eventually decide on October 16 (the Booker committee is known famously for its last-minute decisions and indecisions), one can be certain Thayil deserves to win. Narcopolis is a one-of-a-kind 'Joycean' novel to emerge from India in the last several decades. It is the most powerful and hard-hitting narrative of its time.
For once, you have a book whose writer has moved beyond the desire to show off that he can flawlessly write in English, be overly descriptive and appeal to vanilla-skinned audiences with dollops of purple prose on semi-autobiographical sentimentality, concerns of economic growth and displacement anxiety of immigration. Here is a story that is not out to prove ephemeral beauty, Indianness, or some eager feral subaltern/suburban fantasy. It is a howl of anguished pain and frustrations of a poet, a hallucinatory ride -- a rush of blood to the head -- to flip you over to the dark, twisted fairytale set in the side lanes of a mushrooming metropolis, dealing with the blows of heroin addiction, savage lust and moral ambiguity.
The story is mostly set in Bombay, in the hoary 70s-80s, at a time when Hindu-Muslim tensions are about to flare up, the pavement stone killer is making headlines for smashing homeless people's sleeping skulls, and the nights are full of promise, perversions and endless nasha.
It all takes place on Shuklaji Street, the dilapidated hub of sin in a cosmopolitan city where dreams hang upside down on sale, where behind closed doors hide opium dens, and its gutters overflow with poverty and sodomy, and on its gully walk pimps, prostitutes, beggars and thieves all gambling fate for a living. Out here all characters stumble to lurk and vanquish like flies to excrete looking for a hit, nightmare and fix; ready to trade in good health, life and family for smoke, talk and futility.
Narcopolis speaks of a deranged, starved and epileptical wisdom that's crawled to the surface from the bottomless pit circling our rudderless culture to reveal its true face. Jeet Thayil uses a language that is filled with graphic sexual imagery and violence to portray a side of life that exists on the footpath, merging with dust, sharing needles, and crumbling beneath the starry dynamo, which doesn't shield or hide when you roll up the tinted glasses of your air-conditioned car, in a bad part of town. The sentiment and apathy of his motley characters is infectious, poisonous, drug-induced, stained by semen, and diseased by junk.
"This chooth country, cunt country, how the fuck are you supposed live here without drugs?" goes one particular rant about how the entire nation is run by conniving, cheating and murderous communities out to outdo each other, all apart from Bombay, which is why it is the Narcopolis, the capital of O, and the hero or heroin of this story.
It also gives you a glimpse of a man, a former addict, whose own experiences crawl and slip under the mask of his characters like smoke, who survived and suffered a long time ago from being burnt or consumed by dancing too close to the flame.
If Jeet Thayil wins the Booker, it shall tantalise and herald a new era of fiction writing from India that has finally learned to grow up, and isn't afraid of what its mummy-papa, uncle-aunty ought to feel and think, or facing the wrath of God or death, to tell its story. Thayil will set dangerous and dexterous precedents for Indian writers to also consider obliterating self-censorship that knifes through them, and rid them of the ghosts of colonial past, and help them finally write from the heart, soul and pain.
The beauty of Narcopolis is that it's cleverly crafted, and it's poetical, gritty, historical, perverse and novel in form. This is the story from the other side of midnight, which needs to be heard, and more often. It is authentic, beautiful and offensive as smoke, which needs to pulled and sucked harder till the senses are numbed and the hum of the motor in our heads is gently running.