Monday, 30th October 2017

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Jeet Thayil wins over Arpita and all!

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  • Published 21.08.12

The rain pelted softly against the window pane, misting up the grand view of Victoria Memorial. Inside, a small gathering settled down to enjoy a conversation with author-poet JEET THAYIL, anchored by DEBANJAN CHAKRABARTI, who heads British Council’s English language policy and publications in India. An Author’s Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement, along with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal, was held at The Chambers on Friday, in association with Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi.

t2 sat in on the conversation, which soon turned into what Calcutta is famous for — a rollicking afternoon adda! Prose and poetry readings by Jeet added an extra spark.

Debanjan Chakrabarti: Congratulations Jeet, for getting longlisted for the Booker for your debut novel Narcopolis [Faber & Faber, distributed by Penguin]. The Booker website says a very interesting thing: “The Man Booker Prize has the power to transform the fortunes of authors and publishers.” Do you agree?

Jeet Thayil: You know, it’s not that much money. I mean £50,000 sounds like a lot but if you don’t have a job, which I don’t since I’m a full-time writer, it’s not the kind of money that’s going to change your life in any monetary way. How long will £50,000 last in Delhi? May be a year-and-a-half, more likely a year…. And I write pretty slowly.... The thing that will change is all your following books will have the Booker legend on it and that, of course, is something money can’t buy.

It is very nice to win a prize. Because you have worked on it sitting alone in a room for whatever number of years and all your anxieties and neuroses come out in that act. It’s good to win a prize because it’s a kind of confirmation that someone other than you and your mother had read the book (grins). And it’s some kind of an appreciation… that’s important. But when you’re working on the next book, it doesn’t matter that you had won a prize. All those anxieties come right back. So, when you are back at your desk, a prize doesn’t really change anything.

DC: It’s interesting that you would say that about prizes because Booker has had this particular tendency to damn authors with high praise. I mean Arundhati Roy never wrote a word of fiction after she won the Booker [in 1997 for The God of Small Things], Aravind Adiga [2008, The White Tiger] almost flipped over. Now he’s making a sort of comeback... Coming to my next question, I feel the idea of space-place is very important to you. Is there a comment that you are making when you choose to call Mumbai Bombay?

JT: Well, in this book, especially since it’s set in the 1970s, I refused to use the ‘M’ word. If I had it would’ve been unbelievable because at that point, that city starting with ‘M’ didn’t exist. It’s also a political position because people who use that word are of a very specific political persuasion in Bombay. They are the city’s current management and they are notoriously intolerant of people, not just of people of other religions but of people from other parts of the country. For me that is the opposite of what Bombay stands for and has always stood for. It was a place where anybody was welcome as long as you had talent, ambition, a desire to work very hard… if you had these, the city welcomed you with open arms. In a way it’s a tragedy that that Bombay no longer exists.

I’ll read out a part of the first sentence of my book. The entire sentence runs into six-and-a-half pages. The reason I used long sentences in this book is because this book is set in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s in Bombay and it begins in the opium dens of Shuklaji Street and follows a group of characters as the theme of that area changes from opium, which is a very 19th century beautiful cultural experience, into the harsh, degrading and ugly world of heroin and modern Bombay. To make that come alive, I realised I couldn’t use short sentences.

K. MohanChandran (General manager, Taj Bengal): You made a comment just now about Bombay welcoming migrants. Another such city that comes to mind is New York. In a sense the American culture has always been welcoming of migrants. That country was built in the last 200 years by migrant communities. What do you think would be an Indian social view on migrants, particularly in the light of natives of the Northeast now fleeing certain cities? Similarly in America, there was a hate crime at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin....

JT: Well, it’s a current topic in almost every Indian city. I think it’s also happening in cities where you would never have expected. I don’t know if that’s the case in Calcutta but people having to flee south India is a shock!

But, you know, this happening in America, to me, is not a shock. I’ve lived in New York for seven years and I’ve seen that change happening. And you can see it happening in parts of Europe… in France, in Germany… and in many ways it’s a regression.

Sundeep Bhutoria (of the Prabha Khaitan Foundation): Just three days back, I was in New York. There’s this area called Murray Hill. I asked somebody the way and he said quite angrily: ‘Oh, you mean Curry Hill?’ I realised that entire area has over 40-45 Indian and Pakistani eateries. Do you think this migrant problem to an extent is because we go to a new place and try to impose our culture, refusing to have anything to do with the adoptive country’s ways?

JT: Yes, there is a kind of a ghetto mentality. And yes, it’s also partly the fault of the immigrants. They all want to live in one area and to recreate ‘home’ there. I worked in an Indian newspaper in New York and there were many people in that newspaper who never spoke English. Ever! They never ate anything but Indian food. They never watched a movie other than an Indian movie. So, why live outside India then?

What happens when you recreate India in New York is that it becomes like a ghetto. I lived in Jackson Heights — ‘Jaikishen Heights’ as it’s sometimes called — and it really was a ghetto. But it was very cheap, just $600 a month. None of the building laws were followed; I lived in a basement beside the boiler room, which was illegal.

dc: Let’s talk about the role of the city in your imagination. Do you feel you are following in the tradition of Dickens or Honoré de Balzac or Charles Baudelaire, who romanticised the city…

JT: Very interesting that you should mention these writers. All of them have been crucial in some way in my imagination. Baudelaire was the first poet I read, when I was 14. Back then I always put Baudelaire against [William] Wordsworth. I thought you had to be one or the other, a Baudelairean if you liked the city or a Wordsworthian if you liked the country.

Rita Bhimani (PR consultant): How much of knowing about drugs has come from your personal experience?

JT: I have done a lot of the drugs mentioned in this book. I was using drugs for almost 20 years. That time I was a journalist. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the period of drug use coincided exactly with my period as a journalist (laughs). I hated my life then and drugs was the way of dealing with it. By the way, there’s a passage about saints in this book and a character says that the patron saint for journalism and drug addiction is the same [Maximilian Kolbe]!

Anyway, while I was doing drugs I didn’t sense that one day I would write a book about it but I realise now — it’s in fact one way to make it bearable — I was actually doing a kind of an embedded journalistic research. May be for much too long, but you know I’m very thorough with my research (chuckles)! It’s one way of consoling myself that I didn’t completely waste 20 years.

Rita: And how did the drug use sit with your musicality?

JT: The thing is, during those years, I was unable to play music or write a novel. The only thing I could do was write for journalism and poetry. Because both can be done quickly. I made music but I didn’t really compose or play in a band.

Fawzia Halim Rahman (businesswoman): What provoked you to write this book?

JT: Actually, I started writing a book of non-fiction in 2005 about India. I had been travelling and wanted to write about India’s different cities and states and a book about religion in India. Of course, now when I think of it I feel it’s a good thing I didn’t write that book! I think it might have sold all of two copies. About a year into working on that, it announced itself as a book of fiction. When I started to work on this book, it opened a kind of a vein… and I remembered all kinds of smells and sounds and sights from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s in Bombay that I had no idea that I remembered.

Also, a lot of the people I knew in those years were dead... because of the nature of their life. So I wanted a way to honour them, to write about their lives, to memorialise their lives.

DC: There’s an awful lot of sex and death in the novel. Do you think they are related concepts? Orgasm is, after all, described famously as ‘little death’….

JT: Yes, definitely. In the world of Narcopolis, they are absolutely connected. In fact, many of the characters, when they are engaged in one of the acts are thinking of the other. And that kind of happens throughout the book. I think there’s a reason why it’s called ‘little death’, because at that moment it does seem as if your life is ending.

Malavika Banerjee (Director of Gameplan Sports, which organises the Calcutta Literary Meet): In this book, there’s this absolute uninhibited writing, which I thought is very unusual for an Indian writer. And the long sentences you mentioned remind me of Roberto Bolano [Chilean novelist]. What were the influences that made you write this uninhibited flow? Were you conscious that you were doing something that is normally not associated with an Indian writing in English?

JT: It occurred to me that a lot of the fiction that I read by Indian writers I couldn’t recognise. I saw nothing in that fiction that I saw as the life around me. It all seemed very kind of nostalgic and sweet, about saris and monsoons and spices and mistresses and gods and festivals and big houses with rambling porches and loving grandparents and wonderful grandchildren.

Those things are true but if that’s the only kind of life that’s reflected in a country’s fiction, it’s an absolute lie. So I wanted to give the other side of the story. If you live in an Indian city like Bombay or Delhi, you see horror on a daily basis. For me it was important to put that into a book.

It also occurred to me that the reason Indian writers don’t write that kind of a book is because of self-censorship. They are always worried what their families would think... parents, auntijis and unclejis… what would they think if I used the work f**k in a book?! Although they hear it 50 times a day! With me that didn’t matter because my parents already knew about me. In fact, when this book appeared, my father [veteran journalist T.J.S. George] told his relatives, ‘It’s a very good book. Buy it, but don’t read it.’ (The room erupts in laughter.)

DC: I was struck by your mastery over the language in this book, particularly when I read that first sentence, the prologue. Has poetry helped in shaping your prose, in making it so chiselled, so measured?

JT: Thank you for saying that (smiles). Well, especially while writing the prologue, I would read it out loud a lot, which is something you do with poetry, just to get the rhythm, to get rid of the words that you don’t need, because poetry really is compression. So when I was revising this book, mostly what I did was cancel, cut out sentences, often pages.

I also worked hard on the first sentence so that it didn’t seem contrived. There are no semi-colons in that sentence because that’s cheating. You can write a whole book with semi-colons. There’s actually a book by a great Turkish author called Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age [by Bohumil Hrabal]. The entire book is one sentence!

DC: The world that you describe in your poetry and in your novel, there’s tremendous seediness and seamy-ness, the dark underbelly of the city. While reading Narcopolis, I thought there were many things common with other contemporary art forms emerging out of India — say films like Gangs of Wasseypur, 22shey Srabon, Dev D, Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys….

JT: Also Gandu [by Q]. You know I have often thought about this… there does seem to be — and it’s a very recent thing — a kind of permission now to talk about things and portray things that hadn’t been considered traditional subjects of art. And I think that’s fantastic. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of it now and in about five or 10 years, we’re going to see a flowering of art. And people from small towns, places that were not considered to be on the map of artistic production, will come into play. I think it’s a very exciting and productive time to be in India.

DC: As a closing comment, I’d like to turn this whole conversation on its head. What do you think of events like these? Obviously as a writer you write because you want people to read your books. And then there is this whole industry that feeds on it, expecting writers to be performers….

JT: But often I find it very energising to read before an audience, especially something that you’ve been working on for years. It’s a very useful thing to read it out before a roomful of people you’ve never met before and to people who have not read the book. I think it’s very important to do that for a writer because otherwise you’ll end up sitting alone in your ivory tower, working on your computer forever and I think the worst that you can do is have very little connection with what people think and read and love! That can be very dangerous.

Anyway writing a novel is a very solitary, depressing, miserable way to make a living. If you commit a murder, how do they punish you? They put you alone in a room. This is what writers do voluntarily! Writing is like serving time. So I think it can be very useful to get out of that zone and step out into the world.

Text: Samhita Chakraborty and Sreyoshi Dey

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