Poet-writer Jeet Thayil talks about his writing, life as a writer and what writers need to do in the times we live in.
One of the busiest authors at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Jeet Thayil sometimes wooed his audience with his poetry and sometimes with his prose. “Writers are not like cooks who have to source local ingredients for a dish. Cultural appropriation is what musicians and artists do,” Thayil emphasised at a session.
But it is difficult to label Thayil as a poet, novelist or a musician (guitarist and vocalist). He has four poetry titles to his credit, including These Errors are Correct, which won him a Sahitya Akademi award in 2012. He is also a librettist—the author of the libretto for the opera Babur in London—which has travelled to Switzerland, the UK and Sri Lanka. But he doesn’t like categorising things. “Rather, I like to break norms. It is a childish impulse that has never changed,” said the 58-year-old, whose latest book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, was published in November. Thayil’s debut novel Narcopolis won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Literature Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.
Tale of two books
“The Book of Chocolate Saints is a bigger book, much more ambitious than Narcopolis. So it was much more difficult to write, but it is easier for the reader, as it flows very organically. I have tried to make it a page-turner.” Thayil believes not everyone should attempt to read Narcopolis, a book seen from the eyes of a eunuch and an artist in an opium den in Mumbai. “Maybe I thought about the reader a bit more this time.” His latest is the story of poet and artist Newton Francis Xavier and the lives of poets of Mumbai in the Seventies and Eighties, an era for which Thayil draws inspiration from his “journalistic life of 23 years”. It’s also a directory of ‘chocolate saints’, or rather the saints who were brown and had black hair. “Santa Claus wasn’t from the North Pole or blonde-haired,” he told a rapt audience at an early-morning session at the JLF. The book is a result of writing that comes with “close observation, also called love”, he said.
Both his books are semi-autobiographical to a certain extent. “Those are my formative years, although at that time, I had no idea those will be formative years. It is funny how that kind of experience plays itself out in life in ways you really cannot predict or expect,” he said. The underlying theme of both his books is death and grief. “But my next book will be different. It is a collection of essays and stories, and a big part of it is set in Vietnam.”
The writer’s narrative
Thayil calls himself a “slow writer”, whose writing includes a lot of rewriting and editing. “Sometimes if you are very lucky, you get the flow right in the beginning. My first poem in the first poetry book appeared just the way it was intended to be. But that happens very rarely.” A good writing day in his life involves a first draft of 300-400 words.
Thayil painstakingly pays attention to his secondary characters. “If you look at great classical novels, like Tolstoy’s work, the beauty lies in the secondary and tertiary characters. Russian writers have been a huge influence on me.” He calls himself belonging to the Salman Rushdie school of character names—Goody Lol, Dismas Bambai, Amrik—where each name has more meanings than one.
Debunking the reviews
Thayil’s latest book has been termed as a “celebration of misogyny of male artists”. But in one of his sessions, he said: “If anything, the reviewers should use the term ‘misandry’. But I don’t blame them entirely. They are given two days to write a 800-word review of a 500-page book I spent six years to write,” he said.
But he can’t ignore them either. “You have been working on something for six years and then it goes out to the world. You would want to know what the reviewer thinks about it. But one day, I hope to reach a stage of equanimity and wisdom, where I won’t read a review. But it’s just not happening right now.”
Writer, the performer
At a session where he was asked to read from his book about suicide, Thayil put up a disclaimer: “There are so many schoolchildren here in the audience, so I must say that suicide is the most horrible option,” he said, before reading out two pages in his deep baritone.
He also understands the role of a writer at a litfest like no other. “Writers most often say anything to sound entertaining. I know what our jobs really are. It’s to entertain. It is certainly a performance. A writer at a literary festival is kind of a performing monkey playing his best tunes.”
Freedom of expression
On the penultimate day of the fest, his audience got to see Thayil as a performance poet. Dressed in a crisp white linen shirt and blue denims, Thayil’s first poem was a critical note against the leader of the country.
Four years back, Thayil, along with a few fellow writers, had created a furore at the fest when he read out from Satanic Verses, a book banned in India, as an act of defiance over Rushdie’s non-appearance at the fest due to protests. There were several police cases against him in Rajasthan. Has he learnt his lessons? “I am still a bit reckless. I should have learnt my lesson, but I haven’t. I hope never to learn that lesson. I mentioned yesterday while reading the poem that it is dedicated to the prime minister of the country. It is a very critical poem. It’s very clear that the BJP is not a close follower of English poetry in India, as I haven’t received death threats yet,” he laughed.
On a more serious note, he said “It’s an unprecedented historic moment that we are living in India. In fact, not just India, even in America and Europe. It is a vital time to be alive for a writer because everything is very clear. Good and evil are very clear to us. What kind of a moral stand you must take, it’s all very clear. Just as during World War II, everything was very clear. Depending on which side you stood, you were making a strong statement about the kind of person you were. It’s exactly like that today. If you are American and think Donald Trump is a wonderful man, it tells us everything we want to know about you as a person. Ditto in India. If you think that the government is morally upright, we know exactly who you are,” he minced no words.
In fact, he laughed at the false narrative in the air: “Incredible India, Make in India, Swachh Bharat… it’s all a joke. It’s the job of writers to laugh at these lines and tell the world the truth. India is an underbelly. Rather, there is no underbelly in India. It is rather the overbelly of India.”