India Insight

Spending time in ‘Narcopolis’ with Jeet Thayil

October 11, 2012

I spent some time talking with Jeet Thayil, whose book on Mumbai and opium culture is a contender for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which will be awarded on Oct. 16. You can read the interview that we published on the Reuters news wire. Here are some excerpts:

Q: Does this make you feel strongly about the city?

A: “Bombay does that to people. It makes a (connection) with you. It makes it difficult for you. It bludgeons you. I’ve been reading about that area, Shuklaji street. It is disappearing now – Kamatipura, Shuklaji street, (the) entire area between Mumbai Central and Grant Road is disappearing, being bought away by real estate sharks who are buying up all the broken-down houses and making tall buildings. So very soon that entire district will disappear, and with it a million stories.

Q: In an interview you used the word “seductive” for Bombay. In “Narcopolis”, words seem to come from under a cloud of smoke. Is there a parallel you have drawn between opium and Mumbai?

A: “That’s kind of hinted at in the book where the change from Bombay to Mumbai takes place … It’s the change from this old 19th century romantic, glamorous, quiet, slow world of opium to the quick, brutal, modern, degrading world of cheap heroin.

And here are some parts that we saved exclusively for India Insight:

Q: Is this book a tribute of sorts to Mumbai?

A: Definitely. It is also the opposite of a tribute. I don’t think it would be possible to write that kind of a portrait without feeling deeply for the city, feeling love for the city. But there is also a very ugly side to the city that you can see in the pages of the book, and the future that it points at, it is clear there is more ugliness is coming. It is horrifying. It is still a city where you get a sense of brotherhood and community, but also there is more and more a feeling of fearfulness and the kind of communication that happens between people is based on which community you belong to. People want to know that the first thing, and then tailor their speech accordingly. That’s why they always ask what your name is – your complete name.

Q: At the outset you refer to the ‘I’. Define the ‘I’ in your book.

A: There are two I’s. One is the very banal, middle class, boring narrator. With typical literary pretensions, who looks at the world as a tourist. But he only sets the frame and disappears. The author finds him the least interesting of the many characters in the book. Then the other I is the pipe, it is a literary conceit where the story is told by the pipe, and all the people who have smoked in from the pipe, there stories come out of the pipe.

Q: How does the featuring in the Man Booker shortlist feel?

A: It feels wonderful. I’m very familiar with Will Self. It is a very strong list. Although I haven’t read any as yet, I do plan to read many on the list.

Q: Tell me something about your music

A: I started to play guitar the same time I started to write poetry. I was in lots of bands over the years but I also took a break from music for many years, and recently in 2008 I got back into a band. We did an album. The name of the band is Sridhar/Thayil. And the album is STD. It is hard to define our kind of music. The singer, she sings opera, Hindustani classical and jazz. I come from a blues, rock and broken word and funk background. I write very strange pop stuff. She writes jazz.

Q: How long have you been writing poetry?

A: I started when I was very young. At the age of 13 I was introduced to poetry by an uncle in Kerala. He was an eccentric genius. He was engaged in this huge, and hugely absurd task of translating Baudelaire from French into Malayalam. He introduced me to Baudelaire. It gave me a physical reaction. Many years later I remember reading Emily Dickinson and she said you know great poetry when it takes the top of your head off… she meant it figuratively, of course. But what she meant was when you read poetry, how do you know it is good poetry is when you get a physical reaction to it. I got hooked.

(Jeet Thayil at home in New Delhi, Oct. 3, 2012. Reuters photo: Mansi Thapliyal)

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