I met Jeet Thayil on a wonderfully nippy, December evening in Bangalore. I had read Narcopolis a month back and was desperately hoping he would win the Booker because it had been long since a book had thrilled me so much that I didn’t want to leave its world. It ought to have been one of those meetings where you are awe-struck and thinking of really clever things to say because you admire the writer so much. It was supposed to be an evening with a blend of nerves and awful self-consciousness.
Instead we sat across the table and spoke easily of cities, literature, music, and food. He knew just the right dish to order from the menu although it was his first time at the restaurant.
We had planned to meet for an hour or so.
Instead we spent a really pleasurable evening, leaving the restaurant only because of the Bangalore curfew at 11 pm, with him answering my questions and sipping his red wine as I got high on the company and the delightfully sweet whiskey amarettos I had ordered.
We kept in touch.
I later read These Errors are Correct and decided that I must try to get him to do a poetry workshop at Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW). I did just that when we next met. It was another delightful evening. This time we spoke about poetry. Subject to terms and conditions, this might just happen.
But for now, here is Jeet.
How did you start on the novel? What were the first lines?
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.
Most writers in India are very apprehensive about writing a literary novel. Yours is very literary and one could say iconoclastic. Thoughts?
It wasn’t deliberately iconoclastic; it was deliberately literary. The literary novel has a long tradition of formal innovation. I don’t think I did anything new. I allowed myself to approximate other kinds of literary or artistic endeavour: the poem, the song, the proverb, the list, the line drawing, a description of an imaginary book or movie. I’m often full of doubt; but there was a moment early on when I knew the story was worth following as far as it led. It was after I wrote the chapter titled ‘A Walk on Shuklaji Street’. It opened up an arterial vein. The poet said poems are never finished, they are abandoned; I think that may be true of a certain kind of novel as well.
What was it like writing an entire novel and moving away from poetry? Is it an easy transition to make?
I’ve always written prose. It’s just that I didn’t have the ambition or the discipline or the resources to finish a long-form piece of work. Every time I’d attempted a novel I’d given up at some point, given up in frustration at how slender and unsuccessful my efforts had been. In 2004, I gave up drugs and regular employment; I became a full-time writer; I ran out of excuses.
There is a long list of poets who turned to prose, for example, Roberto Bolano, Denis Johnson, VS Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje. Of course, Naipaul may not agree with that description, but he did write poems very early in his career. I suppose the discipline of poetry teaches you economy if not parsimony, and the power of compression, and it shows you the portmanteau possibility of words.
Talking about the possibility of words, is there a subtext in the word ‘Narcopolis’? Reading it, I felt there was an echo of ‘necropolis’. Am I reading between the lines?
For me, Narcopolis is a city of the dead and a city of intoxication. I thought it was an apt title because under it, like a secret title, is the word, necropolis; the book exists, then, as a kind of memorial on which certain names.
Ostensibly about drugs, I do think the novel has political overtones. How do you view it?
I am always disappointed when people refer to Narcopolis as a drug novel. The drugs are a frame, a hook on which to hang a tale about Indian society.
How have people in India responded to the novel?
With a notable lack of enthusiasm.
Have you faced any rejection from publishers especially in India? How did they react when they heard about the subsequent Booker nomination? What does that say about the literary establishment in India?
There has been an about-turn in the tone of the Indian media after the favourable reviews from the west. It tells us that India’s literary establishment—though that may be a misnomer, let’s call it the world of Indian book journalism—is as colonial as it has ever been: we still need white men to tell us what is worthwhile about our own culture.
How different is Jeet the poet, from Jeet the novelist?
Writing a novel is work, sort of like a nine to five job. You have to be at it every day, you have to be fit and alert, and you have to be willing to live in your mind for long anxiety-ridden periods. And it is manual labour. In comparison, poetry is play. Also, the returns are much – quicker. However long you may work on a poem, however many drafts it may take, at the end of a few weeks or months you have something to send out into the world. With a novel, the process is delayed; it plays itself out in long, solitary stretches of time (I’m using, advisedly, the terminology of prisons). It’s the loneliness of the long distance runner against the ecstasy of the sprinter. That said, poetry, fiction, a libretto, it’s all the same: it’s all writing.
Your works—I’ve only read Narcopolis and These Errors Are Correct— predominantly explore addiction, memory, mourning, water as salvation, damnation. Correct?
It’s true that a lot of the themes that occur in my poems also occur in Narcopolis, but I think there is a reason for that. Your obsessions don’t change from book to book. The themes you’ve mentioned occur in Narcopolis in varying degrees, but so do others. Death, sex, madness and transformation are fairly constant motifs. And there are references to imaginary works of art, usually books, but also music, film and painting. I’ve always thought that sex and drugs were Bombay’s secret history, hidden between the lines of its official history, which concerns money and glamour. In Narcopolis, the city of intoxication, the secret history is paramount. Every character in Narcopolis is an addict of some kind. Most are drug addicts, but there are also violence addicts, god addicts, sex and alcohol addicts, beauty addicts. For the people in the world of the book, addiction is the only means of exaltation and of escape.
Tell me more about addiction. In the book, Dom Ullis says that the opium pipe told him the story of the book. How are opium and heroin crucial to the story?
In the course of forty years, between 1800 and 1840, Bombay was transformed from a collection of seven malarial islands to India’s premier metropolis, thanks mainly to opium. It was from Bombay that the East India Company exported opium and raw cotton to China. The city’s economic rise and eventual emergence as the financial capital of India had everything to do with opium. This is something most history books omit. Not to mention the fact that the East India Company was the biggest drug dealer in the world. The Company worked with a group of Parsi ship owners to send thousands of chests of excellent product to China every year. They became inconceivably wealthy and inconceivably brutal. Like all drug dealers, the Company knew it had stumbled on the ultimate product, a product that created its own inexhaustible demand, a perfect market. And they milked it for all it was worth. This is the background to the opium story in Narcopolis. Since I was writing an opiated history of Bombay I had to find the right form, and of course it would have to be a form that eschewed the simple declarative Hemingwayesque sentence for longer dream-ridden open-ended ones. I wrote the six-page sentence that begins the book about halfway into working on it, and when I realized I’d hit on the form, I rewrote everything. In that sense, the book dictated its own form, the pipe is the book’s ‘“I’” more than Dom Ullis is.
Which novelists and writers were you reading while writing this book?
I have a list somewhere of the books I was reading in those years. But the writer I kept returning to was Dostoyevsky, and the book I returned to was The Brothers Karamazov. I wanted to write a kind of Russian novel, with digressions, insanity, exaltation, ecstasy. There’s something about the Russian novel that is uniquely suited to India:, the feudalism, the religious preoccupation, the passion and hysteria, the regard for the written word. The chapter ‘Stinking Asafoetida’ points to the ‘Stinking Elizaveta’ chapter in Karamazov. I also read poetry, though I didn’t write any while I was working on the book. It occurred to me, somewhat late in life I admit, that the thing about the novel as a form is its capaciousness. It can include anything:, poetry, history, line drawings, a digression on Blade Runner, a comparative study of the sari versus the burkha.
Why Russian novelists in particular?
I’ve admired the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. I’ve always admired novels that try to encompass an entire universe within two covers. Of course, it is an impossible quest, doomed to failure, but the failure is success in its way. Russian novelists have this quality, they have an anarchic variety of voices and forms, and allow themselves an absolute freedom. (“If nothing is true, everything is permitted.”) The Russians take no prisoners. Each Dostoyevsky novel was written as if it was his last, as if he’d never write again and he has to put everything into it. As a strategy, it is far removed from the novel as we know it today.
What’s your relationship with Baudelaire? Especially in ‘To Baudelaire’ in These Errors Are Correct. I think even in Narcopolis there are a few explicit references to Flowers of Evil.
When I first started to write, it was in imitation of some of the poems in Flowers of Evil. I did a few translations at that time, at the age of fourteen, from French to English. There was something about the voice in those poems that struck me as absolutely modern and urban and timeless. And there was something about his life that struck me as the prototype for the tragic poet, the poète maudit, the doomed artist who burns with a brief high flame. Much later, I thought of the young poets I knew, who drank and drugged in imitation of their heroes, and, unlike their heroes, didn’t produce very much work, because they were too out of it to write. When I wrote ‘To Baudelaire’ it was a statement of independence. I wrote it after I’d cleaned up my own act. It is addressed to Baudelaire but it speaks of a certain kind of self-destructive literary lifestyle. It begins, ‘“I’m over you at last’,” though, as any recovering addict will tell you, nothing’s ever over.
How important are dreams to the form of the novel?
Dreams are very much part of the form because the point about opium is the dream. And the introduction of dream creates a kind of dream latitude, a circle of dreams, and a verticality that you can’t always engender in a straight narrative. While writing the book I became a miner off dreams. I read dream journals and studied the mythology. And for most of the writing of the book I had a system. I would work late, then get some sleep and wake and go to the computer while I was still in a bit of a dream state. Invariably, things would happen first thing in the morning that would not happen later in the day. Dreams leak, as Dimple says, via Rashid, from person to person, but also from the oneiric state into waking life. It can be a very useful thing, an aid.
Staying with form, there are many voices in the book. How did you go about constructing this play of voices?
Writing a book in the first person can be limiting. You can’t enter the heads of other characters. But there were parts of the book that had to be written in the first person, the opening sentence for instance. It was a problem, and I thought the way to solve it was to have multiple storytelling modes. There is first person and there’s third. And the conceit is that the voices you hear in the book are the voices of those who have smoked from the Chinese pipe that is in some ways the centre of the tale, namely, the voices of Dimple, Mr. Lee, Rashid, Rumi, Dom.
O Dimple. She is unforgettable. Is it based on a real person?
Dimple is based on someone I saw in an opium den on Shuklaji Street in 1980 or thereabouts. She was making pipes, briefly, for the customers and for the owner of the den. She was charismatic and elegant and then she disappeared. I never forgot her. There’s also something in her of a pipeman called Aziz who worked for a time at Rashid’s, which was a real opium den on Shuklaji Street.
Are there more such people in the book?
Rumi was modelled on two people I knew, friends of mine, one of whom is dead. Though the evil side to him is entirely of my own making. While writing Rumi, I understood why actors enjoy playing villains. There’s something about letting the worst of your own impulses out into the light, and using it to create art, that is liberating and cathartic.
Rashid and Bengali are both also modelled on real people. They’re both dead now and there’s no one who will remember them except a few people who were around in the opium dens of Bombay in the late seventies and early eighties. One reason I wanted to write this book was that I wanted to create a kind of memorial, a way of inscribing certain names in stone. As one of the characters says, it is only by repeating the names of the dead that we honour them. I wanted to honour the people I knew, the marginaliszed, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low; and I wanted to make some record of a world that no longer exists — except within the pages of a book.
Mr Lee. Why China? Deliberate?
I knew China would be a part of the book. I didn’t know how big a part until I started to write the section that came to be titled, ‘Story of the Pipe’. It is an unexpected Russian digression into China, but the title of the section tells the reader why it is there and how it feeds off and into the main narrative. I grew up in Hong Kong: I lived there for most of the seventies. It is difficult to live in close proximity to the Chinese without being affected by how encompassing and far-reaching the culture is. This happens to Dimple too. Her connection with Mr. Lee becomes one of the two defining relationships of her life; a family relationship.
The section set in China, which is about a quarter of the book, is a way of charting the course of the pipe’s voyage, via Mr. Lee, from China to India. I wanted China in the book, because no story about opium in India would be complete without it. India and China were the twin poles of the opium trade, though the drug caused more damage in China than here. The section is a way of telling that story — through the story of Mr. Lee’s father and how his life unravels, and how Mr. Lee then flees to India. I was accidentally and uniquely placed to tell it, because I grew up in Hong Kong and spent much of my adult life in Bombay.
Did the den of Mr. Lee really exist?
Mr. Lee was again 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.
So is Narcopolis autobiographical?
There is an autobiographical element, but it is mostly in the details. No amount of research can uncover some kinds of information; you have to have been there, doing it. Particularly in the descriptions of Shuklaji Street, I wanted to paint a picture of Bombay at its peak, when it was still Bombay, not the city whose name is never mentioned in the book. In a sense, the book is an autobiography of Bombay, over thirty or so years.
Is that why you included Pathar Maar?
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.
You’ve used the novel-within-a-novel technique. Tell me more about this.
There are many books within Narcopolis. For example, Prophecy is one, a story by a man who has nothing left to lose. It is part of his legacy for his son, and what a legacy it is, a book and a pipe, reading and intoxication, interchangeable states that allow a man to transcend the narrow confines of his life. Narcopolis is also a book about reading, and these passages – , the imaginary books that occur within –, are a way of widening the narrative, of pointing to the future and inhabiting the past. That said, I had a lot of fun with these sections, the cameos by books. It was a way of allowing the imagination to take up residence in the book.
The characters play many roles in the book. How important was this?
The first and most fundamental role of roles that the characters in Narcopolis play is that of the addict, which is a role that becomes your life. (To subvert the twelve12-step dictum: you fake it to make it.) This is a pose of course, but a life-changing pose that brings with it many benefits. Addiction eliminates the hegemony of time; it eliminates boredom and general confusion; it puts all existential questions in context. There’s no time to wonder about the meaning of your life when you are caught up in something bigger than yourself, something that has its own compulsions and demands. This is the lure of the drug —: it flattens the world into something manageable, something that is seemingly within your control. Though in truth nothing is.
There are some very funny parts in the book. Does that come naturally, it seems effortless. Is there something about the form of the novel that perhaps allows the writer to be funny? How important are humour and comedy to you?
Thank you, I’m very glad it appears effortless, because it isn’t. The point about the novel, as opposed to the poem, is that there is room for more than one kind of voice. You can switch from tragedy to comedy on the same page, and it doesn’t have to seem contrived, it can carry the reader along. I enjoyed the freedom of it, of using everything you know, including from jokes and songs, and poems and eccentric extemporaneous digressions.
What sort of research, if any, did you conduct, especially when writing about the underworld?
Well, about fifteen years of first-hand research in the drug subculture of Bombay, which, as you know, is closely related to the underworld. The interesting thing about the crime bosses of Bombay, particularly in the context of an opium den, is that they left their business outside the door of the khana, though their personalities were always in evidence. These were guys who rarely spoke, and, if they did, everybody paid attention. They were almost invariably emotional, in that they displayed their emotions and they weren’t shy of appearing sentimental. It had everything to do with being aware of their mortality, which made each day a gift and every conversation special. Opium has that effect, it bonds the people who use it; it makes them feel as if they are part of a rare brotherhood or priesthood.
Did you write the book in Bombay then?
I started to write it in Delhi in 2006, then in Bangalore and finally in Bombay. I’ve moved seven times in the last seven years, including across continents. It made little difference to me where I was. I was living in a city in my head, a city that no longer existed. In a way, it was better to not be living in Bombay. And when I neared the end of the book and found I was back in Bandra; it didn’t feel to me as if I was living in the city I was describing. That’s the thing about fiction, you use the true detail to create something imaginary, and the details make it convincing. A little bit goes a long way. I don’t think it matters where you are as long as your rituals and spells and touchstones are in place.
So what is your relationship with Bombay?
It might have been difficult if I’d chosen another city to write about. Of the many cities I’ve lived in, I’ve lived in Bombay the longest. I’ve lived there off and on, more off than on, if you know what I mean, for more than fifteen years. There are parts of the city I know very well. I’m thinking of Colaba, Bandra and Bombay Central. And even today there’s that thing that happens when I get off the plane in Bombay, the instant knowledge that I am in my place. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to call any city home, but if you put a gun to my head and ask me to name one, I would probably say Bombay.
It’s a very honest, even brutal book.
As one of the characters says, ‘“If you want to make something genuine in this climate you have to think about indolence and brutality. Also: unintentional comedy’.” I was always suspicious of the novel that paints India in soft focus, a place of addled nostalgia and loving elders, of monsoons and mangoes and spices. That idea had little or no connection to the country I knew. To equal Bombay as a subject you would have to go much further than the merely nostalgic will allow. you to. The grotesque may be a more accurate means of carrying out such an enterprise.
Why Delhi, now?
I moved the week after I finished Narcopolis. I was glad to not be in Bombay when the book came out. The rightwing in Bombay, who will be angered, among other things, by my use of the old name, do not write bad reviews when they dislike a book (not that they read books to begin with). They come to your door and break your legs, or, more likely, your writing hand.
Do you labour much as a writer? Are there many revisions? I read somewhere that you wrote most of Narcopolis in a hallucinatory state. Is that even possible?
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.”
What was the idea behind the one long continuous sentence in the Prologue?
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.
Can you talk about the circular end in the book?
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?
Are you working on your second novel? What is it about? Is it related in any way to Narcopolis?
I’m working on a novel with the working title of The Book of Chocolate Saints. Chocolate here is skin colour, not a food group. The central character is Newton Xavier, who appears for a chapter in Narcopolis, though it is a long chapter and he owns it and people have asked why he disappears; well, it is this book that he disappears into.
About Jeet Thayil
Photo Credit: Basso Cannarsa
Born in Kerala in 1959 and educated in Jesuit schools in Hong Kong, New York, and Bombay, he is a graduate of Wilson College, Bombay. He received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Author of four collections of poetry, including English (Penguin/Rattapallax 2004) and These Errors Are Correct (Westland 2008); and the editor of Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets (Fulcrum 2005), Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora (Routledge 2006) and THE BLOODAXE BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY INDIAN POETS (2008).
His poems have appeared in magazines and newspapers such as Fulcrum, Verse, Agenda, The Independent, Stand, Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, the Cortland Review and Poets & Writers.
Narcopolis is his first novel. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize (2012), and The Hindu Literary Prize (2013). Jeet Thayil has received awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.
Jeet Thayil is one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil. They have performed in India, at the Galle Festival in Sri Lanka and at the Great Escape Festival in Brighton, UK among others and were hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘redefining indie music in India’ (July 2009).
In 2004, he moved from New York to India, and lives in Delhi.
About Bhumika Anand
Bhumika Anand is the co-founder of the Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW).