The Straits Times
Published on Oct 06, 2012

Poet turns from drug addict to Booker Prize nominee


Poet-musician-writer Jeet Thayil was just 18 when a friend took him to an opium den in Mumbai.

"At the time, I was reading the French Romantics and I was immediately attracted to a world conducted entirely on floor level, lit by oil lamps and perfumed with opium smoke. I think I was addicted before I even tried a pipe. I found it romantic, poetic, seductive," he recalls in an email interview with SundayLife!.

The romance gave way to gritty reality as the author of Narcopolis struggled for the next 20 years to kick his habit. Clean now for 10 years, the 53-year-old drew on his memories to write his debut novel, which has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize for fiction.

With an unusual narrative structure, the novel is set against the colourful underbelly of Mumbai in the 1960s and 1970s and is populated by a cast of eunuchs, gangsters and addicts. Ironically, it was trashed by critics in India when it was first published but Thayil now has the last laugh as British critics hailed it as a "blistering debut" and he could walk away with 50,000 pounds (S$99,000) in cash when the Booker winner is announced on Oct 16.