Jeet Thayil’s Bombay trilogy
When I got off the plane, within an hour or two I felt like I never left Bombay. It is very rare to feel that way about a city because it’s been a year since I’ve been here,” says Jeet Thayil. It is indeed not surprising that Thayil, much like his pen and characters, does not hold back when it comes to his views on India and literature. And as for a random journalist’s never ending questions about his long gone drug habits, which happens often, he’s definitely had enough. And why shouldn’t that be the case? For the Booker Prize shortlisted author is much more than that. Perhaps the only author with the ability to paint a verbal portrait of Mumbai (he prefers to call the city Bombay), of the 70’s, Thayil’s novels exude the charm that many believe the city once had. Thayil, who has already finished his fourth novel, has penned Narcopolis and The Book Of Chocolate Saints previously.
“I’ve always wanted to write a novel. But I was never able to because I did not have the time and the space. I was into junk for many years. And I had these jobs to finance my drug habits. So, when I quit drugs, I quit journalism. And that’s when I became a full-time writer,” says the author, whose third novel, Low, sees Domnic Ullis fly down to the island city with his wife’s ashes. The novel completes the ‘Bombay trilogy’ as he calls it. “After finishing The Book of Chocolate Saints, when I was working on the next one, I suddenly had this idea for the narrator of Narcopolis – Domnic Ullis, to find himself in Bombay over one weekend, right now, Bombay as it is right now, and I got really excited by this idea,” says the author.
Originally, I had a thousand pager novel’
After the success of Narcopolis, his very first novel, that made it to the Man booker shortlist, Thayil returned with The Book of Chocolate Saints. And for once, the reader comes above the stereotypical Bombay lanes – dingy and dark - that he/she’s usually unwillingly reintroduced to. Thayil makes us see the dense clouds that covered the city were, in fact, once, artistic. Poets, painters and authors walk the by lanes, not gangsters, and their words flare bright enough to pale the glimmer of a 70’s Bollywood star’s most ridiculous outfits. “Originally, I had a kind of a thousand pager novel. And it was impossible. It was so baggy. I mean, it would have been really torturous to expect your reader to read that. So, I carved Narcopolis out of that. Then, I deleted about forty thousand words. And from the rest, I kind of reshaped and restructured it and made Chocolate Saints,” he says. So, how did Low come about? “I see Low, Chocolate Saints and Narcopolis as three instalments in a kind of trilogy. It’s a Bombay trilogy. The thing is that Low wasn’t planned,” he says, before realising how exciting it would be to write about the present day city, and how compressing the adventures of Domnic Ullis into two nights and a day would make for a great story. “That idea really got me. So, I had to compress his whole story, what happened to him in the end of Narcopolis and the story of the world right now, all into 200 pages over two nights and a day. I finished Low in eight months and it’s the quickest thing I’ve ever written. Chocolate Saints took 6 years. Low took 8 months,” he says.
‘I get very bored talking about drugs’
There’s a photograph, Thayil’s new book, next to a bottle of wine… there are articles of his interviews with headlines to enlighten the unaccustomed or those who’re aware (just to remind them perhaps), of his reckless past. His past drug filled habits that he escaped from the clutches of 15 years ago. Is this the author being stereotyped? “Yes, absolutely,” he says, adding, “In fact, this has happened a few times, even at big venues like Australia.” Thayil recounts an instance when a moderator at a discussion just could get over his curiosity… “The guy I was in conversation with, would not stop talking about drugs. It was 25 minutes of questions about drugs,” he says.
“I get very bored talking about drugs. I’ve been there, done that. I quit it 15 years ago. I don’t want to talk about it. At one point, I told him, ‘if all you got out of Narcopolis was drugs, then I’m sorry, you’ve misread the book’. This was going out live on radio in Adelaide and at the end of it, people from the audience came up to me to apologise on this guy’s behalf,” he adds. “The audience was full of people who were 65-70 years of age, who don’t give a shit about opium in Bombay. Then I said, ‘this has been very nice,’ I opened up the discussion for questions and then it got interesting. They had much better questions than this famous radio c**t,” he laughs before explaining how offended he feels every time his works are restricted within the bounds of these substances.
‘There should be a library in the city on the Bombay poets’
For a 10-year-old Thayil, the person he would go on to admire the most, was standing right in front of him, next to his father, expecting a courteous ‘hello’. The legendary poet, Dom Moraes was Thayil’s father’s friend. “First time I met him, he’d come over to our house in Hong Kong. I was 10 years old and my sister was 9. And according to Leela (Naidu; Moraes’wife), my parents brought us out to say hello to Dom and Leela and we came out and were very rude. We barely said hello and left,” he recounts. Thayil’s father, T. J. S. George is an Indian diplomat who worked with Moraes at the UN for a year. “We assumed that because they’re our parents’ friends they must be really boring,” he laughs.
The author would grow up to admire the man and his works. Years later, in Bombay, when Thayil was around 25, he would attend a reading by Moraes. “I was so shy, and so into my own f****d up world, that I could not bring myself to go up to him and say hello,” he says. “Also, he was in really bad shape. I remember, I think he was so badly hungover, that he couldn’t even hold a glass of water – his hands were shaking,” he adds. And there’s a scene in Narcopolis where Francis Newton Xavier, much like Moraes, walks up to the stage for a reading, much like Moraes did that day. “Yes, that scene’s very much true to life,” smiles Thayil.
But the grievance remains that the city has completely forgotten Moraes and his contemporaries. “It’s crazy. In fact, there should be a library in the city, only on the Bombay poets. How can it not be? It should be called Bombay Poets House. A room that only has their books, with portraits of them. You know, any other city in the world, if there had been poets like them, they would have made it not just a celebration, but also monetised it. They’re lost forever, sadly” he concludes.