From narcosis to awakening
Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil on following where the writing leads
By Yeow Kai Chai
A renowned poet in India with four collections to his name, Jeet Thayil achieved an international breakthrough this year with his debut novel Narcopolis.
A bold and darkly intoxicating re-imagination of Bombay (as opposed to Mumbai) in the 1970s and 1980s as opium gave way to cheap heroin, it's been heaped with plaudits, with Britain's Guardian newspaper comparing it to William S. Burroughs' Junky (1953) and Thomas de Quincey's Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater (1821). Most recently, it was picked for the prestigious Man Booker Prize shortlist, alongside books by Will Self, Hilary Mantel, Alison Moore, Deborah Levy and Malaysian Tan Twan Eng.
A reformed addict, the author drew on his own experience to create vivid characters in a phantasmagoric swirl of stories within stories, including: Dimple, the eunuch; Rumi, a violent husband; Mr Lee, Dimple's mentor and a Chinese refugee and businessman; and celebrated artist Newton Xavier, among a cast comprising poets, painters, pimps and even a serial killer.
Thayil has an interesting back-story. Born in Kerala, he grew up in India, Hong Kong and the United States where he received a Master of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Aside from working as a journalist, he has edited the Bloodaxe Book Of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, United Kingdom, 2008) and penned a libretto for the opera Babur In London. A performance poet and guitarist/songwriter, he is also one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil.
Yeow Kai Chai interviewed the 53-year-old multi-hyphenate artist before his appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival.
YKC: First of all, congratulations on being long-listed (and short-listed) for the Man Booker Prize. Where were you when you heard the news, and why do you think Narcopolis was selected?
JT: I saw the longlist on Twitter, which is where I get most of my news these days. When the shortlist was announced I received an e-mail from my editor asking me to call him as soon as I woke.
YKC:: You were raised and had your education in Hong Kong, New York and Mumbai. How has your peripatetic upbringing influenced your writing? Where do you feel most at home, so to speak?
JT: I think one problem with growing up in many cities and homes is that you don't feel settled anywhere. I've moved six times in the last eight years, including across continents. It's disruptive in many ways, but it may also be true that being permanently unsettled, being never at home is a useful condition for a writer.
YKC:: Have you been to Singapore? What do you think of it?
JT: I grew up in Hong Kong and in those years my family visited Singapore pretty regularly. I was recently at the airport as a transit passenger to and from Australia. Changi may be the world's best airport, in that it is designed to calm and soothe. The sound of running water, showers and massages, vibrating chairs that put you to sleep, and, best of all, the koi pond, which is like meditation without a mantra. If I had to choose an airport to be stuck in, it would be Changi.
YKC:: What was the inspiration for Narcopolis? You're a noted poet with four collections to your name, so why the leap of faith to creative prose? What was the trigger that set you on this path to write the novel?
JT: I was a journalist for more than 20 years. In 2004 I quit the last and worst job I had, as a reporter for an ethnic newspaper in New York. I returned to India with the idea of becoming a writer. When you write full-time, you try different kinds of writing. So I wrote a libretto, edited two anthologies and wrote a novel. It wasn't much of a leap of faith. I've always written prose as well as poetry.
YKC:: Do you remember the very first day you started on the novel? What were the first lines? What has been some of the more surprising feedback you have received about your book so far?
JT: I don't remember the first day, because the novel started as a book of non-fiction. Then, while on a residency in Bellagio, on Lake Como, I started to write the chapter that begins Book Three, 'A Walk on Shuklaji Street'. It was like opening a vein: all kinds of things I had no idea I remembered came back to me, bits of music and conversation, a face glimpsed for a moment thirty years previously, long-gone images I didn't know I'd stored. I knew I was on to something and I knew what I had to do: follow where the writing led.
YKC:: In an interview with America's National Public Radio, you said: "I try to avoid any mention of mangoes, of spices and monsoons." I think you succeeded very well; it was a Bombay I didn't expect. Were there any particular Indian novel(s) or poetry books you admire/emulate which succeed in doing so? Also, can you elaborate on the influence of Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire on your aesthetics?
JT: The Indian writers I read on a regular basis are the poets, and they have mostly managed to stay clear of the clichés that accompany much Indian writing in English. A short list would include Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, AK Ramanujan, Adil Jussawalla, Agha Shahid Ali, Eunice de Souza, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Keki Daruwalla, Arun Kolatkar — and that is only the first generation of modern Indian poets. Then there are the younger poets such as Arundhathi Subramaniam, Manohar Shetty, Sridala Swami, Vivek Narayanan, Tishani Doshi, Vijay Nambisan, Ranjit Hoskote, and many others. Indian poetry in English is alive and well and full of original voices. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Baudelaire is the great modern, the poet of the city, a sharp, hypercritical highly intelligent flaneur who looks at the world and finds a reflection of his own corruption and extreme sensitivity. As a younger man, I found him irresistible. That said, Dostoyevsky is the presiding deity of Narcopolis, specifically The Brothers Karamazov. I am always impressed by the confidence with which he embarks on the most esoteric of digressions; and I think, in general, I'm overly impressed by the Russians.
YKC:: In an interview with Wasafiri, a journal of international contemporary writing, you mentioned that it "made little difference to me where I was" when writing the novel. Still, in invoking Bombay of your imagination/memory (as opposed to Mumbai), did you have to do thorough research of the city's recent history, or did it not matter at all? Can you talk us through the process in writing the book through the years?
JT: I went back to Shuklaji Street in 2005 and caught a quick taste of change. I walked from one end of the street to the other and I was astonished at how narrow it was and how cramped. My imagination had made it a spacious unfettered place. I was expecting change but the street had become unrecognisable. The drug houses and brothels and tenements were gone, or going, and the supermarkets and high-rises were already on their way. There was a McDonald's at the end of the street and it pointed at the neighbourhood and the city's future: it would become McMumbai.
When I got back to my desk, I realised the novel I was making was a record of a vanishing city, a place I had loved and would always feel the loss of. And it isn't just the physical contours of a city that have disappeared. Bombay's openness, its status as India's true metropolis, a place to which all visitors were welcome, had been replaced by a narrow idea of right-wing Hindu-dominated Mumbai.
YKC:: The novel has inter- and meta-textual references to real-life events such as the Pathar Maar, the "stone killer" who preyed on Bombay's destitute in the early 1980s. As far as I could find out, the cases remain unsolved to this day. Why did you decide to include it as part of the narrative?
JT: In one way, the Pathar Maar is a stand-in for the crushing city, in that he kills the poorest of the poor and nobody notices because the poor do not exist in the consciousness of the middle and upper classes. He kills them while they sleep by crushing their heads with a stone. There is a suggestion in the novel that the Pathar Maar's actions were socially motivated: he is trying to end the suffering of the poor. One of the characters, Rumi, has a special affinity for the Pathar Maar. Rumi enjoys violence for its own sake, and he uses the fear and chaos generated by the killings as a kind of smoke screen for his own ignoble murders.
YKC:: I read that you returned to Delhi from New York after Sept 11, 2001. Did 9/11 have any impact on you in any way?
JT: Yes, of course it did. I was going to work that morning, to the ethnic newspaper's office on 24th and Sixth, when the subway train was stopped and we were asked to evacuate. I walked about 10 blocks downtown, while the entire city seemed to be fleeing in the opposite direction. For some reason, I thought it was important to get to work, and of course it was the least important thing in the world. I continued to live there for a couple of years after Sept 11, but something changed, something had gone out of the city. It was not a good time to be dark-skinned or a foreigner. For someone who remembered what New York was like in the 1970s and '80s, it felt like loss; and it was similar to what happened to Bombay after the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992 and 1993. It was the end of joy.
YKC:: You have said dreams are very much a part of the form, and that you wrote some of the passages in a hallucinatory state. Presumably, you rewrote and refined some of the passages when you were more alert, but are there parts in the novel which you left intact, or rewrote very little?
JT: I wrote none of it in a hallucinatory state. I've been in hallucinatory states and the last thing you can do in those moments is write, and even if you do write it is incoherent, not to mention illegible. What I might have said is that I wrote early in the morning, when I was still partly in a dream state. I find it is a useful time to work through structural problems: you make connections that will not occur later in the day, when your logical workaday brain is the boss.
I rewrite a lot. I like to take time over a novel. I don't like to hurry. I find when you work on something over several years, time deposits layers, alluvial material, a richness, like tree rings. There are passages of Narcopolis I did not rewrite much, for instance the prologue, but such passages are rare. I wish I were the kind of writer who produces immaculate prose at one go, but I'm not. I'm in Robert Lowell's camp: "I'm not a writer, I'm a rewriter."
YKC:: Can you discuss the pacing and syntax in the novel, from the breathless headiness of the Prologue with its one long continuous sentence to the measured syncopation in the retelling of Mr Lee's China?
JT: The Prologue is told by the narrator, Dom Ullis, as well as by a pipe; and the entire book is told in the course of a single opiated night. That was the opening premise, though of course premises change or grow. So the prologue had to have the rhythm of an opium dream and for that a single sentence seemed to me to work best.
Lee's story, on the other hand, is told by him to Dimple and comes to us, therefore, at two removes: from Lee to Dimple and from Dimple to the pipe or narrator. So the sentences had to be clipped, less digressive, more to do with the character of its protagonist, who is speaking in a language he is not comfortable with.
YKC:: In an interview with The Hindu newspaper back in 2006, you said you were working on a work of non-fiction called An Alien Of Extraordinary Ability, which I presume became Narcopolis. At which point did you realise it is better pitched as creative fiction, and why the switch?
JT: An Alien Of Extraordinary Ability was going to be a non-fiction book about India, with particular reference to its religions. I worked on it for about a year before it announced its true intention, that it would be a book of fiction. The announcement occurred with the chapter I mentioned earlier, 'A Walk on Shuklaji Street'. From then on the book was very clearly fiction, and it was my job to follow where it led.
YKC:: The character Dimple is a maestro of guises. She thought at one point: "The image has nothing to do with truth. And what is the truth? What would you want it to be?" Philosophically speaking, what kind of truth(s) do you seek in your works?
JT: I try to fight the typical novelistic ambition, which is to put the whole universe into a story, however small or slight the story may be. I fight it but I'm not always successful. Again, the Russian novel is a useful yardstick. The world in its infinite complexity goes into those stories, and somehow the writing does not tip over into the contrived or the incoherent.
YKC:: Narcopolis is a web of stories within stories, alive with storytellers and story-seekers. Yet, you also highlight the slippery nature of recollection. When Dimple tries to remember her painful past, Mr Lee said: "Forget is best." He also said: "Why remember when anyway your memory wrong, ALL WRONG." In your opinion, when is (selective) amnesia good, and when is revelation desirable, and how do you negotiate that delicate balance?
JT: Selective amnesia is good for civilians and bad for writers and I don't know if I negotiate successfully between those two worlds.
YKC:: You based many of your characters on people you knew, either dead or alive. Have you heard any response from those people (live ones, obviously) or their acquaintances? For instance, Book Two, 'The Story Of the Pipe', tells the life story of the Chinese refugee Mr Lee, who is also Dimple's surrogate father. Did you base him on someone or people you know?
JT: Mr. Lee was based on someone real, a gentleman of the same name. He ran an opium den off Shuklaji Street that was a secret and a legend. Indians were not allowed, except for me. Why he made an exception in my case I have no idea. He died of cancer the following year. Most of the people I knew from that time are dead. Many of those who survived are not exactly readers of literary fiction; and even if they were I doubt if they would be impressed.
YKC:: Book Three, 'The Intoxicated', chronicles the transition from opium dens to the more insidious world of chemical heroin. What is the impact of both narcotics on the characters?
JT: The opium smoker in Bombay was a strange contradiction. He was a slave to the pipe, but at the same time he often had a business and a family, and looked after himself and the people dependent on him. When heroin invaded Bombay all of that changed. The opium smokers who had been smoking for years and had been fairly healthy began to die. It was a kind of fatal epidemic. And we're still seeing the effects of it.
YKC:: For many of your characters, narcotics are often a double-edged sword: They are a source of escapism and solace even as they obliterate. For Dimple, opium told her she "was loved, no beloved: she was beloved and not alone". Who do you think is the most sober character in your book, and who do you think is most lucid when high?
JT: I would say Rumi, who is probably the most negative character in the novel. He is sober even when he's high. And he is the most lucid because he never forgets who is and what he wants and how he will manipulate the people around him. He never forgets his essential nature, which is vile, and he has no interest in bettering himself. He simply wants to exist, which, in his case, includes the visitation of medieval violence on others.
YKC:: A reviewer said Dimple constitutes the heart and soul of the novel, being neither male nor female, flitting between genres and genders. Would you think that's a fair assessment of the novel, too?
JT: I hadn't thought of it that way, but, yes, I'll accept that as a fairly accurate assessment of the novel as a whole.
YKC:: Can you talk about the ending of the book which ends in the same spot where it started: The narrator, Dom, and the pipe and the account they've now made together: "All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay." How did you decide to end it?
JT: I had the ending long before I finished the book. I knew it would begin and end in the same place, as so many things do. In this case, an opium room, as a pipe is being made, the last pipe on the last night of the world. And I knew the book would begin and end with the same word, Bombay, which is the novel's true protagonist. I also knew I wouldn't tie up every loose end or provide easy answers or a pat moral. You don't get those things in real life, why should you in a novel?
YKC:: I understand you've started on your next novel which has the working title of The Book Of The Common Saints. Can you tell us a bit more about it? And whether there are echoes from Narcopolis, or is it a very different book?
JT: The new working title is The Book of Chocolate Saints and chocolate here doesn't refer to a food group but to skin colour. People have asked me why a character appears for a chapter in Narcopolis and subsequently disappears, the painter Newton Xavier; well, he disappears into this book, which is the portrait of a cut-rate modern-day saint. There are certainly echoes of Narcopolis, but this book is more hopeful and less claustrophobic, in that it is set in four cities rather than one.
Jeet Thayil will appear at the following programmes at the Singapore Writers Festival: panel discussion: The City as a Character, on Nov 3 from 2:30 pm to 3:30 pm; Coffee Reads at TCC, on Nov 4 from 10am to 11am; and panel discussion: Where is South Asian Writing Going? on Nov 4 from 5.30pm to 6.30pm.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012