Jeet Thayil: “I Wanted To Record A Time That Had Vanished”
Jeet Thayil’s novel Narcopolis, set in the Bombay of the 1970s and ’80s, has made it to the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The happy news follows the cancellation of the Indian tour of Babur In London, the opera Thayil wrote with composer Edward Rushton. (Read Thayil’s thoughts on the cancellation, which was made on account of sponsors’ fears of offending religious sentiments, in a recently published op-ed here). In a phone chat from his home in Delhi, Thayil spoke to us about making the shortlist, capturing a fast-disappearing Mumbai, and his next project. Edited excerpts: .
This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist has been called, by The Guardian, a reversion from last year’s “quest for ‘readability’”. What do you make of the claims of many reviewers that Narcopolis is hard to read? I’m sure there were reviewers who never made it past the first few pages.
In fact, it’s six-and-a-half pages, that first sentence, and I knew that there would be a certain kind of reader or reviewer who wouldn’t make it past that. There have been a few reviewers where it’s certainly that, all they talked about was the first sentence.
I knew a six-and-a-half page sentence would turn off certain readers, and that’s fine with me, because it’s that kind of book. In terms of the form of it, and certainly the subject matter, it’s not an easy book. Not the kind of easy reading that you think of when you think of an Indian novel in English. I knew there would be uncomprehending critics. Everyone has an opinion, and some people aren’t ashamed to voice it even if they’re uninformed.
Did you ever think, either while writing or afterwards, that the book should be more daring, more difficult?
No, I took it as far as I wanted to go, and I have to say I didn’t compromise with that at all. I didn’t make it more readable or easier or any of that. It’s also a difficult read in that it’s not until halfway through the book that you see the structure of it; you have to read well into Book Three, after the Chinese section, until you understand what kind of novel it is.
When I wrote it, I thought this was a novel that wouldn’t find its readers very quickly, that it might take five or even ten years to find its real readers. Being longlisted and now shortlisted has speeded that process up by years. Readers who probably would never have picked up the book have picked it up, have read it.
Are you following the buzz and the odds making?
No, I haven’t been following the odds making, but someone sent me an email today that I’m 10-to-1 on William Hill in the UK. So I’m a long shot.
You wrote, nostalgically yet with clear-eyed dispassion, about a Bombay that has all but entirely disappeared. They say even Kamathipura will vanish within a year or two. Was writing about that era and that milieu an attempt to hold on to the past or reclaim a certain kind of city that once existed?
I returned to Bombay in the early 2000s, around 2005, and saw the changes, and got a quick vision of the future and saw what was coming. I knew that Bombay as I knew it was disappearing—had disappeared. I could just see it. I wanted to record a time that had vanished. For a lot of people, in five or ten years they’ll find it hard to believe that it existed at all. That the city had a red-light district—Grant, Falkland, Foras Roads—that was as big as its business district.
It’s a real shame that there’s a whole past and a culture and a history of Bombay that has effectively disappeared by business and greed and rapaciousness. Shuklaji Street [where the bulk of the novel takes place] still exists, though it’s changed completely. I was there not too long ago and was surprised to see a McDonalds there at one end. And on Foras Road, instead of the cages, the dungeon where they kept prostitutes, there’s a row of identical shops all with signs that have to do with telephone companies and travel agencies. All identical and very ugly. It’s the death of a certain personality of the city.
Though the milieu may have disappeared, we do still have a tight-knit community of transsexuals. Do you know if they’re aware of the book? Is there an informal competition among Mumbai transsexuals for who’s going to play the part of Dimple in the movie?
I would love to see a movie version, what can I say. They’d have to create the entire thing. I suppose it would be a studio version, and I suppose the Dimple character will be played by a Bollywood star. If I had my choice, it would be an old-time-y star like Leena [Chandavarkar] or Rekha…in their heyday. They’re past their heyday, but there’s always digital magic.
You were a musician before you were a poet. And of course, a junkie. Now you’re a novelist and a librettist. Do you feel you’ve been collecting skills or personas, or shedding them as you go?
Junkie was a very long phase. All these things that have happened to me over the last five years happened only after I quit and cleaned up. It’s not an accident. I’ve been a musician for as long as I’ve been a poet, but I never put an album together because I never had the discipline. In the last four or five years: a book of poems, two anthologies, an album, a libretto, a novel, and now another novel just a couple months from being ready.
Can we have a sneak preview?
It’s a portrait of a cut-rate, modern-day saint. And actually one of the characters from Narcopolis who disappears early in the book makes his reappearance here. [It's the painter Newton Xavier.]
Fiction and…well, books. Fiction as well as non-fiction.
Will they bring you back to Bombay for any length of time?
I come back every chance I get. I love visiting, I can’t keep away, as a matter of fact. Any chance I get, I’m back like a shot. I travel a lot these days, but I keep coming back to Delhi. It doesn’t have the character of Bombay in that sense, but I find it’s an easier place to work because the day-to-day stuff is easier. But it’s not a city you can fall in love with.
How do you stay young? [Thayil is 52, but could easily be mistaken for 35.]
I don’t know if I’ve managed to stay young. Maybe that’s something to do with being unsettled in the mind. I’ve never felt settled or comfortable, really. I feel like as much of an idiot as I did when I was 18.