It was with his first book
of poems, ‘Gemini’ (Viking Penguin, 1992), that Jeet Thayil became
famous. One of the leading performance poets and musicians, Thayil followed
with ‘Apocalypso’ (Ark, 1997), ‘English’ (Rattapallax Press, NYC,
2004), and ‘These Errors Are Correct’ (Tranquebar, 2008). His latest
offering, a novel, ‘Narcopolis’ (Faber and Faber) was written in 2012.
has said he wrote the novel “to create a kind of memorial, to inscribe
certain names in stone. It is only by repeating the names of the dead that we
honour them. I wanted to honour the people I knew in the opium dens, the
marginalised, 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.”
Born in Kerala in 1959 of a
writer and editor father, T J S George, Thayil spent his childhood mostly in
Bombay, and received a Masters degree in Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence
College in New York. He is the author of the libretto for the opera ‘Babur
in London’ with music by Edward Rushton. He is the editor of ‘Bloodaxe
Book of Contemporary Indian Poets’ (Bloodaxe, UK, 2008), ‘60 Indian
Poets’ (Penguin India, 2008) and a collection of essays ‘Divided Time:
India and the End of Diaspora’ (Routledge, 2006).
Thayil’s work traces an
ongoing metaphysical inquiry, sparked by a dark humour amid the ruins of
language. His characters are constantly reminded that life is a death
sentence, and yet there is light. A strange orders reigns in the world of his
novel, subverting the social order with the faithfulness of dreams.
The News on Sunday: The
blurb on ‘Narcopolis’ reads that you were born in Kerala in 1959 but you
grew up in Hong Kong, New York City and Bombay. Could you tell us about the
experience of growing up in all these cities?
Jeet Thayil: My father was
a journalist, and we lived in many parts of India, and in many parts of the
world. He started a magazine in Hong Kong called ‘Asiaweek’ in the mid
1970s. So my entire family moved to Hong Kong in 1969 when I was about nine
years old. I stayed there until 1980, and then returned to India to do a BA
from Wilson College in Bombay. I was working in India, soon after, and
continued to live in different cities. In 1998, I returned to New York to do
Masters in Poetry. After that I worked in New York as a journalist with a
newspaper called ‘India Abroad’. It was a terrible newspaper but I needed
money. Since it was for expatriate Indians in America, it was basically full
of matrimonial and immigration lawyers’ ads. And in between those ads there
was some white space that needed to be filled — that was my job!
TNS: How do you respond to
‘Narcopolis’, your very first novel, being compared to Roberto Bolano and
to Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’s Son’?
JT: I am very flattered by
the Bolano comparison. I think he’s among the five greatest writers of this
century. In fact, comparison has also been made with William Burroughs and de
Quincey, but I think, the most accurate comparison is with Bolano and
However, the only
commonality I can envision between myself and Burroughs is ‘heroin’.
Certainly, no commonality in terms of style or even subject matter at all;
the only thing that is common is that we both write about drugs. As they say,
“If heroin was to write a book, this would be it.”
TNS: We come across a whole
genre in literature spawned by the drug culture, from Aldous Huxley’s
‘Doors of Perception’ to M Ageyev’s ‘Novel with Cocaine’ to, more
recently, Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Moth Smoke’. How do you relate to that genre?
JT: I’ve been a great fan
of that genre of literature. I’ve read all the books that you’ve
mentioned, including ‘Moth Smoke’ when it first appeared in hard cover.
At that time, I was ‘doing’ the drugs he’d described. I thought it was
an excellent book. I was very excited to finally see books by writers from
this part of the world writing about drugs in a very ambitious and literary
For me, ‘Narcopolis’ is
not about drugs; it’s a literary novel about society, religion, God and
death. The framework that hooks the entire narrative rests on is drugs. I get
disappointed when I hear ‘Narcopolis’ being described as a book about
drugs. Of course, there are parts of the book which are autobiographical but
I tried very hard not to write an autobiographical novel because there are
plenty of those in the world, and I was really not interested in writing
another one of those.
Although some of the
details of the world described in ‘Narcopolis’ are based on
autobiography, it’s absolutely been transformed by imagination and idea. As
a matter of fact, I tried to disguise the autobiographical element.
TNS: So how was
‘Narcopolis’ actually born?
JT: The main reason for
writing this novel was that I wanted to create some kind of a record or
memorial for a way of life that has dissipated, for people who are no longer
alive and for the city that has vanished.
Bombay was an amazing place
— the Bombay of my childhood and my youth — welcoming and cosmopolitan,
open to visitors and tourists and to anybody who wished to go there, live
there and transform his life. It welcomed people from all communities, of all
ages, and of all kinds of talent. That city is gone! Now it’s a divided
city; divided along Hindu and Muslim lines; along economic lines.
The city of Bombay has been
replaced by the city of Mumbai. What really changed everything were the riots
in 1992. I don’t think Bombay has recovered from it since, and I don’t
think it ever will! That altered the character of the city forever. And
people are still wounded from that time. Actually it’s a tragedy that a
city that had so much promise unravelled and became this anxiety-ridden place
full of fear and doubt and suspicion.
Of all the cities, Bombay
was the worst hit by the riots. You can’t say that about Delhi and
absolutely not about Calcutta. You will see shop signs with Muslim names in
Delhi and Calcutta, in Madras and Bangalore but not in Mumbai. Byculla and
Bhindi Bazaar, for instance, are ghettoes. That’s not assimilation —
that’s not part of the city’s character or fabric.
TNS: Tell us about your
characters now; were they born of real-life characters?
JT: Dimple is based on
somebody I saw in an opium den very briefly in 1981 or there about. I saw her
a couple of times making pipes, and then she disappeared as people often did
in that world. But I never forgot her because she was visually very striking.
She was charismatic and intelligent, self-possessed and elegant. So when the
time came to write the character of Dimple, she was the photo I had in my
But I never went back
looking for her — there was no point. 90 per cent of the people who I knew
in the den from those years are dead.
Even in the beginning, the
world of drugs was not alien — I felt very comfortable in it. I even fitted
right into it, in a way, but of course the people in that world were all
engaged in some kind of an illegal activity: there were petty criminals, big
criminals, pimps and prostitutes, and of course, drug addicts. But, for some
reason, I felt absolutely at home. I was a part of it — (I was an addict
too) — I went there every day. These were the people I spoke to everyday. I
would spend hours of the day there and was as much of an addict as anyone. It
wasn’t easy to come out of it. I tried many times but was not successful.
Finally, I joined a Methadone Programme in New York in 2002. Methadone is
synthetic opium I took for two years and weaned myself off that.
It was a very seductive
world, and no one can indulge in it without liking it. It feels very good in
a physical way. I can’t make a judgment about the culture that surrounds
it. I got back to the den a couple of times but nobody I knew back from those
days is still around.
TNS: Who’d been an
influence on your literary career?
JT: The poet, Charles
Baudelaire, as a young man but later so many novelists. I did like Jack
Kerouac a lot in my teens, but not today. I still read Allen Ginsberg,
though. I’ve never been that much of a fan of Faulkner’s. As a teenager I
read everything I could by Hemingway. Of all, F Scott Fitzgerald is a poet
— a great writer.
Something amazing is going
on in Pakistan right now. Look at all these Pakistani novelists: there are so
many of them at the same time, and they’re all working. That’s a very
unique thing. Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam, H M Naqvi, Daniyal Moeenuddin,
Kamila Shamsie and Mohammad Hanif: six novelists right there and each one
doing exceptional work. It’s a very special moment in Pakistani fiction. In
India, there is no ‘moment’ in Indian writing. There might, however, be a
‘moment’ in Indian non-fiction. It’s not, however, one kind of a
collective moment that’s happening, though. Basharat Peer, Suketu Mehta,
Subramaniam and Arif Tyrewala are great. Vikram Chandra’s ‘Secret
Games’ is, indeed, a great Bombay book.
The great American crime
novelist Elmore Leonard outlined some rules for crafting a compelling
narrative. His primary technique was to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’
what’s happening in the story.
Many first-time authors
have taken the same approach. How would the method work — telling the
story, not a made-up world of cops and bad guys, but rather about Islamic
history, specifically the rich tale of Andalus, the Muslim Spain.
Zaif Syed has tried that in
his book, ‘Aadhi Raat ka Sooraj’. As the name suggests, the novel deals
with the glory of the Muslim era. That imagery of Muslim rule in Spain is
seeped deeply into our collective conscience, chiefly through the portrayals
in Iqbal’s poems, Nasim Hijazi’s sentimental novels, Mustansar Hussain
Tarar’s travelogues, and then through many television serials.
The story of the Golden Age
of Muslim Spain has been told thousand times by many. It grips our hearts and
imaginations every single time. The same story dazzled Zaif Syed that he
travelled to Andalus to take in the sights, sounds and vistas for himself.
The resulting book is unlike Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s famous travelogues
that sadly boast about propitious companions and then auspicious buildings.
Zaif, on the other hand, was carrying a heavy historical and cultural baggage
He deals with Andalus’
history and the reasons of its fading glory in the novel. Some people might
say that there is no plot in the book in the traditional sense. But once you
imagine that the central character in the novel is Andalus itself, you
realise that the story does have a rosy beginning, a flourishing middle and a
Zaif daringly plays with
several different styles. It takes time to grasp that the novelist and even
the characters are all engaging with the reader in first person. The
writer’s style is probably influenced by noted Italian novelist Italo
Calvino. The novel’s style is probably influenced by Amir Khusro’s
‘Qissa Chahardarvesh’. It’s a great mix that jells with the treatment
of the content. The novelist and the novel, both leave undeniable impressions
on the reader.
The general layout of the
book is that he chooses rich Andalus characters from all walks of life and
then tells their stories. There is a cornucopia of these characters from
across many spheres of life: Military commanders, poets, philosophers,
mystics, heroes, and villains. The writer builds a rich tapestry, which
represents the full gambit of life in Andalus.
The chosen effervescent
characters in the novel tell their stories in their own language, in their
mindset and with their own vision. Muslims ruled in Spain, at least
partially, for nearly eight centuries. Besides his language skills to
interpret a story, his background as a journalist and researcher was handy.
He consulted over 100 books and thus the bibliography mentioned at the end of the novel is as impressive as the novel itself. In some sense, it freshens up your memory and gives a perspective of what went wrong.
Raat ka Sooraj
E. M. Foster
dedicated his most famous novel ‘A
Passage to India’ to his dear friend,
Ross Masood, scion of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, one of the most eminent 19th
century Muslim reformists. The sub-title of the novel is
‘Only Connect’. Forster took the title from Walt Whitman. He began
to write the novel in 1913 but the First World War intervened and it did not
get published until 1924.
Forster’s novel depicts
the muddled atmosphere that existed in India at the turn of the 20th century
with absolute brilliance. His India is a country unapprehendable and vast
where nothing is identifiable, not even the birds. It is a
meticulously-written account of how the ‘natives’ and the liberal
Englishmen understood each other (or didn’t understand each other).
The crux of the novel is
not the sustained encounter between the English colonists whom he describes
as “well-developed bodies, fairly developed minds, and underdeveloped
hearts” and the Indians, but the search for that quite something, which
makes human beings connect with each other. And it is about personal
relationships, about friendship and the extreme importance of friendship.
In 1957, the distinguished
writer, Santha Rama Rau, egged on by Cheryl Crawford, a playwright (and one
of the founders of the Group Theatre in America), began to dramatise the
novel. In a most moving dissertation titled
‘Remembering Forster’ she confides:
“I decided to try. Just
as a literary exercise, I told myself. No one need know that I had had the
impudence to take such liberties with one of the century’s most celebrated
novels. I needn’t in fact show it to anyone, certainly not to Forster who
must be swamped with any number of far more professional adaptations.”
But when she finished
typing out THE CURTAIN FALLS,she couldn’t resist sending it to Forster with a letter “drafted
and re-drafted a dozen times.” To her utter surprise, within a month, she
received a letter from Forster, written in green ink, saying he had read the
play, liked it, and suggested that she should come to Cambridge to talk with
him about it.
The final draft, approved
by Forster, was sent to managements on both sides of the Atlantic who hummed
and hawed over a play, which had a big cast of twenty-five speaking parts —
not to speak of guards, servants, punkha
wallas etc. — and four sets. They did not consider it financially
feasible, especially as the starring role was that of an Indian.
After months of deflating
experience Santha Rama Rau heard from Frank Hauser, director of a company
called The Meadow Players, who requested permission to produce
‘A Passage to India’at the Oxford Playhouse in Oxford.
Where do I come into all
this? In 1959 I had been able to find some directorial work at the Guildford
Repertory Theatre in Surrey. I was asked to direct Noel Coward‘s
‘Hay Fever’, a comedy as English as Devonshire cream. Hauser,
having learnt from Sheila Burrell, my leading lady, that an Indian (in those
days Pakistanis were usually referred to as Indians) was directing a revival
of Coward’s most famous play, came to see it. He was tall and lanky with a
chiselled face on which sat a prominent nose. His eyes shone as he spoke.
After a few pleasantries he
asked me if I had read a novel called ‘A
Passage to India’. I had read it in Australia a few years ago and had found
it to be profoundly moving. He told me that he was going to produce the
dramatised version of the novel at Oxford. “There is a very good part in
it.” he said. “You mean Dr. Aziz?” I asked. He nodded, “Where would
the poor Indian doctor run into the exalted European Principal of the
Government College?” He intoned the line in the fake accent that Peter
Sellers had popularised as the ‘Indian accent’ in the satirical BBC radio
Goon Show’. “No, that is not how Aziz would speak” I said, and I
repeated the line in the manner in which an educated U.P-ite Muslim would
speak English. “You’ve got the part,” he said, ‘Let’s go and find
some place to eat.”
Thus began my deep and
life-long friendship with Frank Hauser. But I disagree.
After the curtain call at
the end of the opening night of ‘A Passage’ in Oxford, E.M Forster
appeared on the stage to a renewed round of thunderous applause. He stepped
forward and talking in front of an audience that included all the London
critics made a speech. In Frank
Hauser’s words: “The opening night went off better than any of us could
have hoped. It was one of those lucky nights in the theatre when everyone —
audience and actors — seemed to come together in a sort of delightful
absorption. Mr Forster rounded it off by making the best curtain speech
I’ve ever heard. After a most graceful and obviously sincere tribute to
Santha Rama Rau, he congratulated the company ‘not only for being so good
but for being so many.’ From then on he had the audience in the palm of his
hand and he juggled them into wild applause. A happy evening.”
When the curtain came down
the great man thanked every member of the cast before coming to me. He held
me by the arm and warmed the cockles of my heart by saying that he couldn’t
have wished for a better Aziz. Our next venue was to be Cambridge, his
hometown, and I asked him if I could take the liberty of visiting him in
Cambridge. “I should be very pleased,” he said, generously. He was 81 at
When I arrived at the
theatre in Cambridge for the opening night, the stage doorkeeper handed me an
envelope. Inside was a card, written in Forster’s scholarly scrawl,
inviting me to tea in his ‘rooms’ at King’s College the following
bequeathed to him by the college authorities, was on the first floor of the
awesome Gothic building of King’s College. The old porter who let me in to
the quadrangle escorted me up a long flight of stone stairs to his front
He was shorter than my
impression of my first meeting on the Playhouse stage. He was dressed in a
tweed jacket and a professorial bow-tie. Frank Hauser had described him as
‘a stooping spry old buffer in a grey tweed suit, glasses glinting, the
familiar rabbit face…’ and he was dead right.
Forster received me with a
smile redolent of sincerity. Mr Zia Mokh-ye-deen” he said pronouncing my
last name with an Arabian guttural emphasis, “And so punctual. Come into my
(to be continued)