Jaipur: Delhi-based poet and novelist Jeet Thayil, whose book Narcopolis narrowly missed out on the 2012 Man Booker Prize, was awarded the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature on Friday, beating rival finalists, Tahmima Anam, Uday Prakash, Jamil Ahmad, Amitav Ghosh, and Mohammed Hanif.
Thayil, who is also a songwriter and a guitarist, was born in Kerala in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay.
Narcopolis is set in Bombay of the 1970s and explores “the underbelly” of society, to quote Thayil. He explained that it is not just a book about drugs but a way of exploring their effect on society. While accepting the prize, Thayil mentioned the book’s initial negative reception among publishers and critics in India. The book was eventually published by Faber and Faber in the UK in 2011.
On winning the prize, Thayil said, “I’m glad it finally won something. Don’t believe writers when they say money doesn’t matter. We, too, have to pay bills. It means a lot to me to win this prize in a country I call home.”
The prize, which is in its third year, is uniquely focused on South Asian writing and is open to authors across the globe regardless of ethnicity so long as their subject is South Asia. Previous winners are Shehan Karunatilaka, for Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, in 2012, and H. M. Naqvi, Home Boy in 2011.
The jury panel was headed by poet and critic K. Satchidanandan; Pakistani writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie; Rick Simonson from the Seattle-based Elliott Bay Book Co.; Suvani Singh, director of the Kathmandu Literary Jatra, and Irish/Canadian cultural entrepreneur Eleanor O’Keeffe.
There were 81 entries for this year’s prize, including submissions from India, Australia, the UK, the US, Pakistan and Bangladesh. A shortlist of six was announced in London in November 2012. Anam, who is of Bangladeshi origin, was nominated for The Good Muslim (2011), a follow-up of her first novel—A Golden Age (2007)—which focuses on the Bangladesh war for liberation.
Another sequel, Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke (2011), followed the opium trade from Calcutta to China, chronicled in The Sea of Poppies (2009), Ghosh’s first book of a projected trilogy. First-time author Jamil Ahmad, from Pakistan, was in his late seventies when his novel The Wandering Falcon (2011) was published. The book brings together stories from the borders between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, where Ahmad worked for the Pakistani civil service. The other Pakistani writer on the shortlist, Mohammed Hanif, who was scheduled to attend the festival but could not, was nominated for Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (2012), a witty but wry account of the life of a Christian nurse in Karachi. The only non-English book to be nominated is The Walls of Delhi (2012) by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum from the Hindi.