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Jeet Thayil: derided at home, loved abroad

Jeet Thayil reflects on the depiction of Mumbai’s low life in Narcopolis, which has already bagged a prize and two coveted nominations

Image Credit: REUTERS
Indian writer Jeet Thayil poses for a picture at his residence in New Delhi October 3, 2012. Thayil, one of the nominees for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for the year's best novel in English, paints a stark portrait of Mumbai, or Bombay as he calls it, in his debut novel "Narcopolis".
Gulf News

 By Jeet Thayil,

Faber and Faber, 304 pages, £12.99


His semi-autobiographical debut novel “Narcopolis” changed Jeet Thayil’s life. From being an obscure poet, he joined the league of distinguished Indian authors.

The 53-year-old writer made good use of “not doing anything” substantial for 20 years by penning his experiences. With one stroke he had made up for the lost years. Ever since “Narcopolis” was nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, Thayil has been struggling with back-to-back festivals, book readings and launch parties.

Born in Kerala, Thayil is the son of writer and editor Thayil Jacob Sony George. He spent his early childhood in Mumbai at St Xavier’s School. At the age of 8 he moved to Hong Kong, where he joined Island School. He was back in Bombay at the age of 18 and went on to graduate from the city’s Wilson College. Many years later, he did his masters in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College, New York.

Also a songwriter and musician, Thayil lived in Bombay on and off until the age of 40 and in between, at different points, in Bangalore. He has worked as a journalist in Bombay, Bangalore, Hong Kong and New York.

His collections of poetry include “Gemini” (Viking Penguin, 1992), “Apocalypso” (Ark, 1997), “English” (Penguin, 2004) and “These Errors Are Correct” (Tranquebar, 2008). Though written four years ago, Thayil only recently won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his last collection.

In his much-acclaimed book “Narcopolis”, Thayil tells the history of Mumbai through the lives of people who frequent an opium den, the “lowest of the low”. He confesses that he had been an alcoholic and a drug addict who wasted 20 years of his life sitting in bars and opium dens talking about writing and not writing, a time he terms “embedded research”.

He struggled to overcome his addiction. “I tried many times to quit, without success. I kept trying, then finally managed at the age of 42.”

In “Narcopolis”, which he began writing in 2006, he weaves together the stories of various characters in Bombay (Thayil uses the city’s old name) in the Seventies and tells the secret history of the city and its drug culture.

Predictably, “Narcopolis”, got adverse reactions and negative reviews in India, only to be highly appreciated and recommended in other countries. “The book in a way challenges the negative ideas we harbour about addicts,” Thayil says. “It suggests we should have an open mind.”

The book has just won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2013 and is one of the five contenders for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Thayil says he was not expecting such a response to “Narcopolis” and it took him by surprise when he was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.

The author now lives in Delhi, where he is writing his next novel based on a character in “Narcopolis” who appears for a chapter and disappears.

When asked what led him to settle in Delhi despite spending many years in Bombay, Thayil says, “I think it may be the horrible weather. I suppose I am an extreme person who enjoys extreme weather.” The author spoke with Weekend Review in an exclusive interview:


What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an Indian author?

I don’t think there are any special disadvantages, they accrue wherever you live and whoever you might be. In fact, an Indian author writing in English has an advantage over an author living in, say, the United Kingdom. It is easier to be published.


After how many rejections by Indian publishers did UK-based Faber accept “Narcopolis”?

A couple of Indian publishers showed interest, but they didn’t pick up on it quickly enough. They didn’t get back to us for months and we decided not to wait. My agent sent it off to Faber, who accepted immediately.


Books such as “Narcopolis” are easily published in the United States and some other parts of the world. You think India could set the ball rolling anytime soon? Have you set a trend?

We’ll see more books like this from India in the future. But “setting a trend” is too grand a phrase. Writers have done this kind of things many times. I don’t think I did anything very new in literary terms.


Which writers are you referring to? Were you influenced by any of them?

In terms of material, Saadat Hasan Manto did something similar. He wrote about the low life of Bombay. I read him when I was in my twenties and loved the stories, though I can’t say he influenced me.


You received bad reviews in India and yet you were nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Do you still look for appreciation in India?

Yes, because I live here. I was and still am disappointed with the reviews because some were written by people I knew. I expected more from them. I expected them to at least give me a fair chance.


Any apprehensions about your next novel? Do you intend to write it in a manner that will satisfy an Indian audience?

I don’t have an audience in mind when I write, that would be crippling. I write the kind of book that I want to read. I write for the ideal reader and that ideal reader is an imaginary concept that probably exists only in my mind — someone with patience, someone who reads a lot, someone to whom books matter, maybe more than real life, and to whom characters in books matter more than people in real life.


Was it easy for you to write “Narcopolis” because of your experience as a drug addict? Although you term those years a waste, on a positive note, it could be considered a blessing in disguise.

I think that may be a useful way to think of it.


Have there been proposals for a film adaptation of your novel in English or Hindi? Would you consider writing the script for it?

There have been proposals and queries from Mumbai and the US. I don’t care whether it is in Hindi or English, as long as it is made well. Scriptwriting is a different kind of skill and I think I’ll probably leave it to someone experienced.


In an interview, you said you were “through with poetry”. Have you put a full stop to it or is there a rethink after being honoured recently with the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award for your poetry collection “These Errors Are Correct”?

I haven’t written any new poems in a while. I don’t see it as a full stop but as an ellipsis; I’m hoping it’s a long pause.


Having gone through ups and downs, are you now a content person?

I never want to be content. Being content is the same as dying. If you become content you stop working. I never want to do that, I always want to be hungry.


Nilima Pathak is a New Delhi-based journalist.


Jeet Thayil will be appearing at the Emirates Literacy Festival, March 5-9, at InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. Visit to book tickets.