Opium Novel Wins $50,000 Prize, Author Thayil Quits Drugs

The last time I had a rendezvous with Jeet Thayil 18 years ago at the Taj Hotel Mumbai, he never showed. When I finally caught up with him in Hong Kong recently and asked why he stood me up, his excuse was simple.

“Drugs,” he said.

The Indian writer had been addicted, first to opium and later heroin, for 20 years. Now, he’s been clean for a decade and arrives for appointments on time.

His first novel “Narcopolis” won the annual $50,000 DSC Prize given to the best work of South Asian literature on Jan. 25. It’s also shortlisted for the $30,000 Man Asia Literary Prize, to be announced on March 14 in Hong Kong.

Thayil, 53, also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, says he’s surprised at the acclaim, especially since his novel was first roundly panned by Indian critics.

“The book was hated by a lot of people,” he said. “The reviews were savage, brutal, and I thought ‘Wow, five years of work down the tubes, I’m done for.’”

Then international reviewers started praising it, followed by the Booker nomination. In India he went from literary pariah to the country’s new poster boy, virtually overnight.

At times, the prose of “Narcopolis” floats like smoke from an opium pipe. At others, it is harsh and unflinching -- a far cry from William Burroughs’s fragmented and hallucinatory “Naked Lunch.”

Altered State

Thayil says he wrote about drugs “without being druggy about it, with all the devices and the structural thought that goes into a novel, even if that novel is about an altered state of consciousness.”

The downward spiral of violence uncovers inconvenient truths at odds with the image of India as an emerging economic powerhouse.

“Walking on an Indian street is to develop strategies to deal with horror,” he says. “One way of dealing with Mumbai is alcohol and drugs.”

Thayil walked into an opium den for the first time at the age of 18, just two weeks into college in Mumbai.

“For someone who had been reading the French poets, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine and the English romantics to walk into that room and see life entirely conducted on floor level, lit by owl lamps, perfumed by opium smoke, it was absolutely seductive, romantic. I might have been hooked before I even tried a puff.”

Heroin Switch

He smoked opium for four years until the city started closing down the dens, forcing users to switch to heroin, “a quick and brutal and ugly world.”

To support his addiction, Thayil worked as a journalist, yet never missed a deadline, he says.

“I guess the Protestant work ethic I was brainwashed by as a child was even stronger than the drug ethic,” he says. (His father was the co-founder of Asiaweek Magazine in Hong Kong.) He also completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. His first book of poems was published when he was 31.

Thayil says that his drug experience was “the opposite of spiritual. It was as degraded and desolating as it can get. For me it wasn’t a creative life. Opiates make you feel so good physically, the last thing you are thinking about is writing.”

While he started writing “Narcopolis” as a memoir, “the book turned into a novel on its own” after a year.

Though Thayil describes novel writing as “self-imposed punishment,” he’s willing to inflict it upon himself again.

He’s into his second novel based on a painter who appears in one chapter of “Narcopolis.”

Others on the shortlist for the Man Asia award are Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for “Silent House,” Malaysian Tan Twan Eng for “The Garden of Evening Mists,” Japan’s Hiromi Kawakami for “The Briefcase” and Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s “Between Clay and Dust.”

DSC Ltd., a road builder, also sponsors the DSC Jaipur Literary Festival which runs through today, Jan. 28.

Information: http://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/

(Frederik Balfour is a reporter-at-large for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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