A strange and sublime departure

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  • Published 31.08.14

Jeet Thayil: I think there’s a reason why musicians get cancer less than other people.

Amit Chaudhuri: Yeah, they just overdose.

The two authors were in conversation with poet and blues singer Anjum Katyal at a session titled Departures at the British Council on Thursday evening, discussing the many creative worlds they inhabit. Jeet is in town to tutor a non-fiction creative writing course with Amit, conducted by the University of East Anglia, UK.

Both are men of letters but also men of music. Asked about the intersection of their crafts, Amit said he feels no connection between he the novelist and he the Indian classical musician.

But he finds auditory landscapes fascinating, both as a writer and as a musician. “So, when I listen to a train making a sound or a piece of jazz or country western music, I am looking at them all equally as elements in a soundscape as being available to me to use in another context. As a writer I am very interested in background sound and I think readers notice that too… I write not just imagery but also sound because I am very, very interested in things which are not visible and the way they touch you,” he explained.

Though Jeet finds “things bleed into each other all the time”, whether he’s working on a novel or poems or a libretto, when he’s making music on stage, guitar slung across chest, “there is really no connection between that person and the person who’s working on a piece of writing”. And music, for him, is a matter of listener’s envy, doer’s pride.

“When you’re in the music, you’re really a part of something… and that’s really the thrill about playing in a band. You are not on a stage alone. If you mess up, there are three-four other guys to hold you when you fall. You play with guys you meet for the first time and in 10 minutes you feel like you have known each other half your life. That doesn’t happen with any other art and that’s something you should envy, people who don’t play music, because there is nothing like it,” grinned the one half of the band ST (Sridhar/Thayil).

Writing, on the other hand, is a “tightrope ride”, he said. “You take the fall all by yourself. It’s a much lonelier occupation.”

Both Amit and Jeet have a DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and a Sahitya Akademi Award in their kitty, apart from other laurels. There’s also a shared history. When Amit was a student at Elphinstone College in Mumbai, he remembers seeing Jeet arrive with his acoustic guitar and play on campus. But Jeet can’t add much to that memory.

“To tell you the truth I really don’t remember those days much. Like they say, if you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t there. That was my Woodstock,” he laughed.

They have acclaimed novels to their name but the long-form genre came in for some serious criticism from both.

Jeet blames the novel for making writers “boring”. “At a party of poets, artists, musicians and novelists, you’ll find the novelist is back home by 11,” he said. That’s because “you have to wake up early, you are so possessive of that morning work”.

According to him, the discipline required for writing a novel means you start to think of physical exercise to keep fit, you start to eat right… because you are engaged in this long-form thing that requires stamina. He said the last time he led that kind of a disciplined life was when he was writing his 2012 Booker-nominated debut novel, Narcopolis. “I look back on those days with a lot of nostalgia.”

Amit minced no words in disavowing the novel, like Virginia Woolf, who didn’t like her novels to be called novels. The writer of novels like A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag and The Immortals finds the current dominance of the novel repressive. “Commercial reasons have made novel the dominant form,” he said. Poems, short stories and novellas don’t really make any money. But he is hopeful this dominance will break, and he “would be a happier person in that world”.