'I don't think highly of Tagore. He is overrated'

Jeet Thayil, whose debut novel, Narcopolis, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, is not one to shy away from a controversy. Smitha Verma meets the former poet and finds him a man of many parts

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.07.13
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Tete a Tete Tete a Tete

It's not quite the answer I was expecting. But Jeet Thayil stumps me. "Delhi is the best place for poets," he says, when I ask him about the market for poetry in India. But then, Thayil knows what he's talking about. He is the author of four poetry books including These Errors are Correct, which won him a Sahitya Akademi award last year.

He refers to the Delhi launch earlier this week of Adil Jussawala's The Right Kind of Dog, published by Duckbill Books. Thayil, who read out from the poetry book at the session held in a niche café, found the place packed to its seams.

"The turnout was quite surprising. Lately in Delhi, young people have been turning up for such readings because they are genuinely interested in poetry," Thayil says. "In Bombay, you are lucky if 20 people turn up for your reading," he smirks.

Thayil is not just a performance poet. He is also a novelist — his debut novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and won him the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2013. And he is a librettist — the author of the libretto for the opera Babur in London which has travelled to Switzerland and the UK.

In public perception, he is still a poet, even though Thayil stresses that he is done with poetry. He is now writing a new novel, and is reworking its third draft . But poetry is never far from his mind.

Thayil stresses that the market for poetry is not shrinking, but expanding. There are more readers and publishers now, he says. It's all happening very slowly, he admits. "But then poetry in any country isn't easy to sell. It's a small world, where people fight for the crumbs. Perhaps that is why we admire and revere poets," he adds.

We are sitting in his living room in a tony neighbourhood in South Delhi. Thayil is in the kitchen preparing coffee and this gives me a few minutes to do a quick survey of the room, furnished quite eclectically. One corner of the rather large living room houses a plush single-seater sofa along with a wooden slouch chair overlooking a small aquarium. A wooden shelf hosts a lampshade, neatly lined wine glasses and other knick-knacks. In another corner, demarcated by a guitar case and a potted plant, a few large cushions on the carpet make for a cosy reading space. The two bookshelves across the room narrate their own tale. One has heavy tomes on food while the other is lined with bestsellers.

"I enjoy cooking, but I enjoy reading cookbooks more," he says, as the rich aroma of coffee wafts into the room.

Thayil looks considerably younger than his 54 years. Dressed in a white linen shirt and caramel-coloured trousers, he almost appears like a fashion icon. On the other hand, his shaved head, chiselled features and a chain with a St Antony pendant on it give him the air of a rocker.

But then, he is also a musician.

His band with vocalist Suman Sridhar — known as Sridhar/Thayil — is much sought after in indie music circles. The band has performed in international festivals, including the Great Escape Festival, Brighton, UK, and the Galle Festival, Sri Lanka. The two are now working on a new album.

Thayil, clearly, is a man of many parts. In another life, he was so severely into drugs that he spent almost all his youth checking in and out of rehab clinics (over two dozen times, he says). He worked as a journalist to sustain his heroin addiction, a habit that he picked up while in college and quit only when he was diagnosed with a chronic liver disease in 2002. "What a waste of life," he mocks.

"I romanticised opium. Opium was a part of so many writers and poets whom I read. I had read so much about opium that I was addicted to it even before having it," says Thayil, whose father T.J.S. George was the founding editor of the now defunct Hong Kong-based Asiaweek magazine.

Kerala-born Thayil and his sister grew up in cities as disparate as Mumbai, Hong Kong and New York. He moved to the US in 1998 to do a masters in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. But he first encountered drugs while he was studying literature at Wilson College in Mumbai.

Thayil believes in retrospect that his liver disease was the best thing that could have happened to him. "It was a wake-up call. I checked into a rehab in New York for the last time, came out clean, got married and wrote a book."

During the 18 months that he was on rehab, he was also working for a New York publication. "It was an extremely painful programme with symptoms ranging from severe body aches, insomnia and an upset stomach to sneezing and a runny nose. But nobody got a whiff of it at my workplace. It would have been beyond comprehension if they knew that a journalist with a respectable job was a heroin addict," he says.

He returned to India in 2004, and turned to an old love — poetry. He had been introduced to verse at the age of 14 because of an uncle who was "obsessed" with the 19th century French poet Baudelaire. "He was consumed by Baudelaire. He had a library full of Baudelaire's works, his portraits hung in my uncle's house and he translated many of Baudelaire's works to English," he says. "That made me want to be a poet," says the editor of collections such as the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, 60 Indian Poets and Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora."

It was not an easy decision. "It takes years for a poet to figure out what is right. Many people don't have the patience for such a long apprenticeship which is why we have such few established poets," says Thayil, whose first book of poetry Gemini was published in 1992. "It demands a certain kind of bloody-mindedness. Poets are wholly fools."

Poetry, Thayil believes, is now a closed chapter for him. "I think I am done with poetry or rather poetry is done with me. You must stop when you have given out your best and I believe my last book was the best that I have ever done or could do," he says. These Errors are Correct was published in 2008 in memory of his wife Shakti Bhatt, a young editor who died of a sudden illness, in 2007.

"It was beyond shock; I was too numb to feel anything. I packed my bags and left Delhi for my parents' place in Bangalore. I stopped writing Narcopolis." The phase lasted six to seven months. "When someone close to you dies you either go to death or life. If you go towards life, you go in a vital and urgent way. That's what happened to me. I felt responsible to carry forward her dreams and hopes."

It took him five years to write Narcopolis which is set in an opium-heavy Bombay (he refuses to call it Mumbai) and revolves around the lives of addicts, poets and eunuchs. The book was rejected by almost every leading Indian publisher before being picked up by Faber & Faber in the UK.

After the book, Thayil says he couldn't do anything for a year. "The book was inviting that terrible horror back," he says. "It was very unhealthy for me."

So we return to poetry. One of his big regrets as a poet is not being able to read regional poetry. "We need more translators. You can count good translators on the fingers of one hand even if you have lost two fingers. It is a tragedy. People don't think translation is sexy and so very few people do it," says Thayil, who has translated French poetry into English.

Translation brings us to the topic of Rabindranath Tagore, who (many litterateurs believe) has not been translated adequately. "I don't think highly of Tagore," he retorts. "He wasn't an extraordinary poet, painter or a musician. He is overrated," Thayil insists.

"Tagore was a real renaissance man. But Tagore the poet isn't great," he adds. Thayil jokes that the statement may cause hackles to rise in Calcutta. But he is ready to face the music.

Thayil should know what it is to attract controversy. In 2012, when author Salman Rushdie was asked not to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival because of perceived terror threats, Thayil was one of the four authors who read a passage from Rushdie's banned work The Satanic Verses. A court case followed.

"It was hair-raising at that point. It wasn't nice to be surrounded by cops. At one point of time, I had four guards walking along with me. It was an awful way to experience the festival." But despite threats to his life and being asked to leave the city, Thayil stayed back. "I wanted to attend a party," he says.

It's time for Thayil to fly to another continent, another festival and another reading. He has a late night flight to catch for Vancouver. As a parting shot he says, "You don't have to suffer in life to be a poet. But if you intend to be one, be prepared for the suffering."