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Jeet Thayil: I fear mediocrity and pettiness

By July 3, 2018No Comments

Source : Gulf News – Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha

The Indian author and poet whose debut novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize talks about his love for music, flawed characters and his latest book

From his prize-winning debut Narcopolis — a languorous tale of opium dens and heroin addiction in Mumbai — that reveals the complexities and contradictions of Indian life to his tour de force follow-up The Book of Chocolate Saints — a passionate account of the Bombay Poets of the 1970s and 1980s — Jeet Thayil is a writer who combines rich and densely realised work of imagination with a dark and offbeat sensibility, emotional honesty and verbal artistry while mining so much out of his own experiences.

Describing The Book of Chocolate Saints, he told a rapt audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January that it’s a result of writing that comes with “close observation, also called love”.

“Did I say that? My instinct is to deny it hotly, no, no, wasn’t me, but I suppose it’s true,” says Thayil. “Be careful what you pay close attention to, it might enter your dreams,” he adds.

“The cultural history is only a third of the world on offer [in The Book of Chocolate Saints]. It’s about race in America, on suicide and punting, on the gross persistence of Indian rapists, on creation of myths and Parisian cemeteries, and so on.”

At 500 pages, the book is panoramic, expansive and more than a moving tribute to his mentor — poet Dom Moraes.

Thayil lived in Mumbai, Hong Kong and New York, and worked as a journalist for 23 years before his first novel was published in 2012, which took him five years to write. Calling himself a “slow writer”, he says, “The Book of Chocolate Saints took longer as it encompasses a wider world than Narcopolis… Also, with a debut novel, I had nothing to lose.”

His staggeringly confident debut novel gained him worldwide recognition — Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and went on to win the DSC prize for South Asian literature in 2013. It meant a lot to him. “If someone says awards don’t matter, don’t believe them,” he tells me.

The 59-year-old Indian novelist and poet draws from his own life to populate his novels — the decades he spent in Mumbai, some in the drug-ridden underworld in the 1980s, gave birth to his first novel, and the second one, too. “Bombay is Narcopolis. The novel could have been set nowhere else,” he says, avoiding any mention of his addiction days.

He responds in easily understandable, short sentences. If an interview is intended not only to convey something of a writers’ work, of his inspiration, but also of his mind, then the whorls and eddies of Thayil’s discourse is capacious, but hard.

A librettist and musician, with projects including a opera named Babur in London and performances with his band Still Dirty, Thayil has led an interesting, intense and challenging life. He’s spoken often of the years he lost to alcoholism and drug addiction. In 2002, after he was diagnosed with the hepatitis C virus, he quit his job as a journalist in New York and moved back to India. In 2007, he lost his young wife Shakti Bhatt, a revered blogger and editor, but continued to write as he grieved. His 2008 poetry collection These Errors Are Correct, which won him a Sahitya Akademi award, charted the ravages of his pain of that time.

To him, writing is not a therapy. “It does [heal], but only for about five minutes. Healing is a continuum. You have to keep at it,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m interested in writing as therapy though.”

Burningly intense, he doesn’t even plot, plan and schematise his novels. “I am not the kind of writer who begins with a structure and plot, chapter outlines, character arcs, the last sentence written first.”

“For me, writing a novel is like taking a raft on a swift river: you have no idea where it will go or when you will stop,” he adds.

Though critics have sometimes been bewildered by his scope, he remains beguiled by the possibilities that come from stepping outside the self and inside. “For me, artistic intelligence is in the hands. You let your hands lead you to the sweet spot. The song or the story knows more than you do, and all you have to do is get out of the way and allow it to reveal itself,” he says, in peerless high-mindedness.

He grew up around books, and it is the books he devoured that, in a way, informed Thayil’s style, taste and belief in the importance of writing about India. He is most excited, and sweetly sentimental, while talking about his journalist father’s library that included a shelf of adventure stories, including The Man in the Iron Mask and Robinson Crusoe.

“Those were the first books I read as a child. At 13, I read Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems in a hardcover first edition, heavily annotated in my father’s hand. There was a selection of [Rudyard] Kipling and Somerset Maugham, because they were the versions of Imperial India available to an Indian reader,” he says.

“But I found also GV Desani’s All About H. Hatterr and a handful of novels by RK Narayan and Anita Desai. I thought this was the way for an Indian to write about India, as a matter of genteel comedy or broad satire or in delicate brushstrokes.”

At 14, he read Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and James Joyce’s Ulysses, also in hardcover, with his father’s name inscribed on the title pages, “T. J. S. George,” and the year he purchased the books, “1959,” the year of Thayil’s birth. “When he found me reading Joyce, he said, admiringly, ‘The book ends with a 50-page sentence.’ Thirty-five years later, the comment — casually made, permanently retained — would have its effect. I began Narcopolis with a six and a half page sentence; unlike Joyce, I used no semi-colons or ellipses, only commas.”

Writing has always been on the wall with Thayil. “I knew I was going to be a writer at the age of 13, when I read Baudelaire [the French poet] and wrote sonnets in imitation,” he says. “The early poems were a pastiche, but I got better.”

Thayil, who has four poetry titles to his credit, doesn’t even “overthink”, he says, the differences of prose and poetry, it’s “all writing” to him. “But I feel most free as a musician, because you’re working with other people and improvisation is key. This makes for a refreshing absence of anxiety.”

But writing in times like these, with the rise of a hard-right populism in India, and presenting issues through the narrative power of art is a cause of anxiety. His stinging disdain become apparent when he says, “In the future, when this Indian moment is dissected, one thing will be clear: the visual artists played it absolutely safe. How loud was their silence! At least writers and journalists took some risks, which is why so many of us have been murdered or threatened or intimidated into silence.”

Looking things in the eye and telling it like it is, is Thayil’s forte. He is more than a writer; an outspoken social critic, I realise. “My biggest fear is that the people who hate us will be in charge of us. I fear mediocrity and pettiness.” He continues, taking aim at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal vilification of the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “The reason Modi despises Nehru is because he was a writer and a reader. Modi is not; producing a bad book of poems does not make you a poet.”

All of this may not come as something of a surprise to those who know Thayil through his novels, where he’s always focussed on flawed beings — tackling characters with sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness, identity and sex, redemption, and recording life in all its impurity, with an unnerving directness of tone. Will he return to the same theme, which has its roots in aspects of his life, in his next book? “I’d really rather not [talk about it],” he says. “I’m superstitious that way. I mean, you can talk something into the ground if you’re not careful…”

At this point in the interview, Thayil implicitly provides a sort of map of his mind. Talking about how he usually unwinds, he says, “I like to sit in a bar with the old guys watching Raj Kapoor movies; or drive around a city at night, noting the pollution stacked up under the streetlights; or take a train to a town with no name; or wonder why the term ‘wooden kimono’ disappeared from our vocabulary… I mean, what a great way to say ‘coffin’. You know?”

Unquestionably, like his brilliant books, his mind is not a simple read.

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.


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