Jeet Thayil: “I Wanted To Record A Time That Had Vanished”

Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis, set in the Bombay of the 1970s and ’80s, has made it to the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The happy news follows the cancellation of the Indian tour of Babur In London, the opera  Thayil wrote with composer Edward Rushton. (Read Thayil’s thoughts on the cancellation, which was made on account of sponsors’ fears of offending religious  sentiments, in a recently published op-ed here). In a phone chat from his home in Delhi, Thayil spoke to us about making the shortlist, capturing a fast-disappearing Mumbai, and his next project. Edited excerpts:

This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist has been called, by The Guardian, a reversion from last year’s “quest for ‘readability’”.  What do you make of the claims of many reviewers that Narcopolis is hard to read?  I’m sure there were reviewers who never made it past the first few pages. In fact, it’s six-and-a-half pages, that first sentence, and I knew that there would be a certain kind of reader or reviewer who wouldn’t make it past that.  There have been a few reviewers where it’s certainly that, all they talked about was the first sentence.

I knew a six-and-a-half page sentence would turn off certain readers, and that’s fine with me, because it’s that kind of book.  In terms of the form of it, and certainly the subject matter, it’s not an easy book.  Not the kind of easy reading that you think of when you think of an Indian novel in English.  I knew there would be uncomprehending critics.  Everyone has an opinion, and some people aren’t ashamed to voice it even if they’re uninformed.

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