Jeet Thayil is an Indian poet, novelist, librettist and musician. He is best known as a poet and is the author of four collections: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar,2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). His first novel, Narcopolis, (Faber & Faber, 2012), which won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, was also shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize.
You must be quite a brave writer: Narcopolis' prologue consists of a single sentence that goes on for six and a half pages. Were you not at least a little worried that this would alienate many readers? I knew that there would be some readers who would be turned off by that sentence. That they would see the sentence, decide they cannot read the book, close it and set it aside. But I also knew that there would be some readers who would see that sentence and be very interested in reading on. So, yes, I was aware that this first sentence was a bit of a risk to take, but it seemed like a worthwhile risk.
The character who initially introduces us to the story -a man who has fled to Bombay from New York- very quickly after this introduction disappears for the longest of time. Why did you send him off? I find him to be the least interesting character in the book. Because in many ways he was the most in common with me.
Is that why you chose him to put the story into motion? To put it into motion and to frame the story. And then, to appear once more at the end and tie up various loose ends. In many ways he is really a non-character, he is a framing technique. He is there just to provide a voice in some ways and to contextualize the things that happen in the book. Because he is a very definite product of the Indian middle class, unlike most of the other characters in the book. They are absolutely of a very outsider Indian class, if not caste, so he is contrasting a very comfortable middle class life versus the kind of squalor that the other characters inhabit.
There is an elegance about these characters that inhabit the margins of society. Or is this elegance maybe a goodwill gesture on the part of the middle class narrator? I think that more that anything, t might have been a kind of function of sentimentality. Or even, yes, a goodwill gesture. Rather a kind of sentimental gesture. Because in real life the people who inhabit that world are not exactly elegant. They are often as brutal as anyone else.
Why did you place Narcopolis in Bombay? What was the plan and plot, when you decided to write this story? There was no other city the story could be placed in, it had to be Bombay. I had always wanted to tell the story of Bombay over those years and especially the story of that culture, that vanished so quickly and which I had experienced. I arrived in Bombay in 1979 and in 1984 that world had ended and heroin arrived. A lot of the people I knew from that time are now gone. They didn't survive the drugs and they didn't survive that life. I saw what happened to so many people. I also moved from opium to heroin. I felt there had to be a way of chronicling that.
What's the story of your addiction? How did you get hooked to opium? Two weeks after I arrived in Bombay to do a BA, I was 19 years old, a friend took me to an opium den. I walked in the door of that place and saw it. Even before I smoked a pipe I was hooked. In one word it was romance. It was just utterly romantic; in a very literary way. I had grown up on De Quincey and Baudelaire and the English Romantics and I suddenly couldn't believe what was before my eyes.
What about another cliche, according to which addiction is connected to creativity? Is there truth to it? No, it's bullshit. But it's a cliche that I had bought into. But you still did manage to write poetry. I was writing terrible poetry. I am so glad that most of it is destroyed. That's the thing about addiction: it's a full time job. From the minute you wake up in the morning you are on a clock. And it's a very urgent clock, because if you don't get drugs by a certain time, you're sick. And it is a horrible sickness.
Addiction is an engine that drives you, all day. It takes up your life. That's why the writing was so bad. The only kind of writing I could do was short form. By that I mean poetry and journalism, the kind of writing that one can do in a burst, in a few hours. I could never have written a novel at that time.
At some point, in Narcopolis, heroin comes into the picture. Then cocaine appears, too. This transition corresponds with intense political tensions and social upheavals. Is this how things actually happened or is it a coincidence? As heroin arrived in the mid '80s, followed later by cocaine, all of that stuff that I describe happened; the rise of the extremist far right, then the riots, the real-estate fever, the increased criminality, the money…So, is it a coincidence? It is possible that it might be a coincidence, but I don't think so. I think it's a symptom. And that it is absolutely normal that all of it happened at the same time.
You are always talking about Bombay, never Mumbai. Yes, that's true. In fact I think there are a number of writers of Bombay -including Salman Rushdie- who also never use the m-word. It is a very deliberate political stance. Because Bombay and Mumbai are two different cities, which will never meet.
Does Bombay then exist only in memory and in literature? Has it been taken over by Mumbai? It has been taken over and it will never come back. I am not being pessimistic, I am being realistic. I can feel the fever among the people on the street. But most importantly I see the people who are in charge, I see the administration. I see how cynical and manipulative they are, how carefully they use the resentments and frustrations of the Hindu working class and turn it against the Muslims and the Christians and even against Hindus from other states. And I see how long they have been doing it for and how similarly the younger members of that party are behaving. This is the future for Bombay, it is not going to change, it is impossible.
What was the book's reception in India? It was uniformly negative. For the first few months after the book was published, every review that appeared, every mention that was made about Narcopolis was negative. There was not one voice that said this is a good book. I thought that whatever people thought about the book, at least in terms of literary fiction they would have a few good things to say. But in fact quite a few reviewers only talked about the first sentence. And then I thought maybe that was all they read.
What was the negative criticism about? Well, in India there's no such thing as critical book journalism. There are very few literary critics. Those who actually swallow a book, you can count on one hand. Instead there are journalists who write about books in a very superficial way. Most of them just get a deadline, which is always last week, so of course they are not going to read 300 pages. They google the title and whatever the last two reviewers before them wrote about the book, they repeat in their own words.
That's why the reviews for Narcopolis had all started to sound the same. It really upset me because I had worked for five and a half years on that book, I thought I had done something worthwhile, something that hadn't been done before in Indian fiction. And whatever it is, I knew that it is a love letter to Bombay. I thought people would at least appreciate it, that they would at least appreciate the fact that it revisits a forgotten part of Bombay's history. But one after the other, the reviews slammed it. There was a time when I didn't want to get out of bed.
Did those reviewers reconsider after Narcopolis was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize? What first happened was that the reviews started to come in from the US and the UK. And they were all good. And then the book was shortlisted for the prize and the tide turned, totally and overnight.
Do you find that you have changed as a reader since you became a writer yourself? No, I still read the same way, which is very rarely with any system. But I'm always reading, sometimes two books at the same time. However when I'm working on a book, I don't read for many hours a day.
What were you reading during those five and a half years during which you were writing Narcopolis? The book I read and re-read during that time was The Brothers Karamazov. In it I discovered the courage in Dostoevsky to do a kind of fiction that doesn't go from A to B or from 1 to 2, linearely. Dostoevsky goes from A to C, D, E, F, G, H…and then he gets to B. But he makes it like a thriller! This book is a page-turner, you can't stop reading. Which makes you think what would happen today were a writer to turn up at Random House with the manuscript of The Brothers Karamazov.
You also write and perform music as one part of the music project Sridhar / Thayil. Would you help me imagine your style? We just did our first album and you can hear it online. It's quite hard to describe our sound. I work with Suman Sridhar who sings opera, western classical, jazz and Indian classical. In fact she is really a jazz singer, but she grew up studying Indian classical music. And I play the guitar, I write songs - twisted pop songs- and I do spoken word.
Are you writing another novel? I am, yes. This one takes place in Delhi and New York. You have also lived in New York. For how long? The last time I was there, I stayed for six years. I was working as a journalist. How long are you staying in Berlin? I'm staying until November. People have been telling me the weather is not exactly beautiful at this time of the year, so I'm hoping to get some work done. It depends on the kind of weather one finds beautiful. Some people like a dark skies and heavy clouds.
I do like them.
The interview appeared in berlininterviews.com