| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI Oct 11 Jeet Thayil, one of the
nominees for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for the year's best novel
in English, paints a stark portrait of Mumbai, or Bombay as he
calls it, in his debut novel "Narcopolis".
Thayil is a poet and musician who has been writing poetry
since he was 13. His novel takes the reader through the Mumbai
drug world's smoky alleys and features the musings of opium
addicts in the late 1980s - a situation that Thayil, a former
opium addict himself, knows well.
Thayil spoke with Reuters about his deep relationship with
Bombay, his addiction and how this book came about.
The Man Booker prize will be announced Oct 16.
Q: What is your connection with Bombay?
A: "I went to school there as a boy. I went to St. Xavier's.
My family left for Hong Kong when I was eight where my father
was working as a journalist. Then I went to school in New York
and then came back to Bombay in 1979 and joined Wilson College.
In all, I've lived in Bombay for almost 20 years."
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. A look of Bombay
will go... a certain character will go. Those people who live
there now of course won't be able to afford to live there.
"At the end of 'Narcopolis', I have tried to draw that
picture a little bit - that Bombay will become a very
uniform-looking place. The kind of variety you used to be able
to find there like dockyards, for example. It will bear a
high-rise tenement kind of look uniformly."
Q: How do you look at this change?
A: "No question, for bad. Not saying purely in a nostalgic
way, I mean also politically. The political changes that have
happened, the kind of changes that have happened in terms of
money. The way the rich have become constantly richer while the
poor are exactly where they were. So the divide has become even
larger than what it was. And the whole right-wing thing that's
happening in Bombay. The way outsiders, people of other
communities, are made to feel unwelcome. These are the kind of
things that one could have never imagined in Bombay. It was
welcoming. Anybody with talent, ambition, with beauty, with
brains you could make it in Bombay. That is the point of this
city. One thing after the other has been chipped away."
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.
Interestingly, now there has been a class shift - it's the
poorest who do it, absolute down-and-out street guys. When opium
was happening, it was respectable. The well off did it, the
upper-class Urdu-speaking ... it had a whole culture with it."
Q: Was writing "Narcopolis" difficult?
A: "It took me five years to write it in all ... I was
working on a lot of (other things) as well. I didn't realize
what the nature of the difficulty would be. And what it turned
out to be was the opposite of catharsis. Catharsis gets stuff
out of you. But this put bad feelings into me. Thinking about
the nature of addiction, which I hadn't done in all those years.
I had to be clean to think about it ... what it takes out of
you, what it gives you. It gives you a lot. Wonderful things,
which I know I'm not supposed to say, but it's a fact. It gives
you a sense of being loved. There is no boredom ever, time
becomes your slave, or the slave of your agenda. There is never
an existential question. It gives you freedom in a way."
Q: How do you look back at the addiction phase?
A: "I look back at it with yearning. It's a bad thing!"
Q: There is a very important character named Dimple in the
book - a eunuch who makes pipes in the opium den and identifies
as a woman. Was she based on a real person?
A: "She was the one who made pipes in an opium den in about
1980-81. I only saw her twice. Then she disappeared. Many people
in that world disappear. There was something about the way she
used to make the pipe, very elegant."
Q: Why the long sentences?
A: "The opening sentence, the prologue, I wrote that about
halfway through the writing of the book, and when I wrote that
sentence, I realized this is the way the book should be. And I
rewrote the book, changing the language of it with long
sentences ... rather than short sentences because I realized the
only way to write about opium was to write long, open-ended
sentences where the writer who is writing it has no idea where
the sentence is going to go. So you follow it and there is a
sense of discovery - for the reader as well, I hope. You
couldn't write a book about opium, which is a very slow, long
process, with short quick Hemingway, journalistic, telegraphic
sentences. So once I kind of stumbled on that, it changed
everything. Then the book happened very fast."
(Reporting by Anuja Jaiman, editing by Elaine Lies)