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‘There’s no excuse to spend years of your life on a book’: Jeet Thayil

Writer Jeet Thayil speaks on his new novel ‘Low’, knowing Mumbai inside out, and his arduous journey from poetry to prose

Jeet Thayil’s new novel captures the highs and lows of life in Mumbai
Jeet Thayil’s new novel captures the highs and lows of life in Mumbai (AFP)

I think I have finally figured out how to be a novelist," Jeet Thayil announces as he takes a sip of hot water with ginger and honey, specially prepared at his request, at Koshy’s Parade Cafe, a favourite haunt of Bengaluru’s intelligentsia. Considering we are meeting to talk about his third novel, Low, this sounds like undue modesty by a writer whose debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012. But there’s a grain of truth in it.

It has taken Thayil over a decade to outgrow the habit of writing like a poet, which he made a mark as in the 1980s and 1990s. Poets obsess over sentences in a way novelists can’t afford to. “The trick is not to sweat it too much, just tell your story and get out," he says. “There’s no excuse to spend years of your life on a book, while the world around you is catching fire!"

Low was done in eight months, the fastest novel Thayil has written so far. Narcopolis, his first, took five years; its successor, The Book Of Chocolate Saints (2017), took six. Thayil’s newest manuscript—another novel, told from the perspectives of women, real and imagined, of the New Testament—is nearly ready to be sent to his agent, nine months after he began work on it. He took a plunge into prose fiction at 45, published his first novel at 50, and at 60, is making up for lost time.

Low is set over two nights and a day in near-contemporary Mumbai. The protagonist Dominic Ullis discovers his wife Aki dead one day at their home in Delhi. A gulf of age had separated the two, exacerbated by their personal afflictions: an incurable liver condition, contracted through prolonged use of drugs, for him; spells of manic depression for her. With Aki gone, Ullis embarks on a grief-fuelled odyssey, armed with her remains in a box, as he flies into the city where he spent some of his formative years.

In a little over 48 hours, we witness a spectrum of Mumbai life, from its upper crust to its seedy underbelly. Ullis finds a protectress in Payal, a socialite who lives in a suite at the Taj. They bond over their weakness for drugs and alcohol, which peaks with the two snorting Aki’s ashes at different points—perhaps the most brutally tragi-comic scenes in a novel bristling with dark laughter.

This debauched pair has a steady supply—heroin, cocaine, “meow meow"—from Danny, who, like many of Thayil’s characters, is as mythical as mundane. The action unfolds in a zig-zag pattern, through the lanes and alleys of Mumbai, with a detour into the bungalows of Alibaug. From a blustering right-wing politician, who takes Ullis to a dance bar, to junkies lying in the gutter, to whom a drug-addled Ullis gives a lecture on climate change, a motley cast of characters come and go. There’s never a dull moment and, like a Federico Fellini movie, no way of knowing what’s going to happen next.

To readers of Thayil’s previous novels, these themes may seem familiar, but the flavour of Low is distinct: it’s a novel that needs to be gulped down at one go, like a tequila shot, not nursed like wine. “I have been wanting to write this book for 12 years. All this time, I was putting parts of it in my other books," Thayil says. Low, he adds, is the end of a trilogy that began with Narcopolis. “The narrator of Narcopolis is the protagonist of Low, and the first chapter of Narcopolis tells the entire story of The Book Of Chocolate Saints. As far as I am concerned, the druggy Bombay book is over; I am very happy to move on."

For a novel that covers terrain similar to its predecessors (drugs, Bombay), Low is fresh and urgent. Narcopolis, as Thayil says, has a “dreamy, circling, swirling, opiated energy". Hallucinatory in parts, The Book Of Chocolate Saints is “a far-flung novel", as it moves from New York to Delhi, Paris and Goa. But Low is a mini-epic in its own right. Homer and Virgil are alluded to in the course of the story, Ullis is misheard as Ulysses by the drunken and the inattentive. His peregrinations through Mumbai make for “a degraded Homeric journey", as Thayil puts it.

Mumbai, or Bombay, as the city was called when Thayil lived there as a young man, broke and staying in a shared room at the YMCA, is a recurrent presence in his books. “It’s the city I have spent most time in, I remember the way it used to be, I can see how it has changed," he says. “Even now, when I walk around, through Pasta Lane in Colaba for instance, I can remember how it was 20 years ago—it’s the city that’s most resonant for me in terms of geography." Being poor in Bombay meant being brutally exposed to what the city was made of. “Poverty compels you to be more open, you cannot be a snob," he says. “Bombay is more forgiving than other Indian cities when it comes to infirmity, poverty and poetry."

If Bombay provides the major autobiographical key in Low, the minor key is sounded by the figure of Thayil’s late wife, Shakti Bhatt, who died in 2007. “The portrait of Aki has a marginal connection to the person in real life you could say it was based on," he clarifies. That’s the gift of fiction, though some critics tend to get fixated on seemingly inconsequential autobiographical details. “So many reviews of Narcopolis focused on drugs," Thayil says, “whereas the book is a history of 30 years of the underbelly of Bombay. The description of drugs in it—and in all books of mine—is not true to life as much as it is true to a novelistic instinct."

Compared to the problem of being slotted into their ethnicity, as usually befalls writers from South Asia, the emphasis on drugs seems like a good problem to have. In spite of his unapologetically experimental style and refusal to tick boxes, Thayil continues to get questions trying to box him in. “As part of a questionnaire for an event in London, I was asked about the Asian writers who have influenced me the most," he says. “Am I being asked this because I’m an ‘Asian writer’?"

It took a leap of faith in his mid-40s—quitting a journalism job in New York and moving back to India to write full-time—for Thayil to reinvent himself. “It’s important never to compromise," he says, “that’s what I tell young writers, seduced by the glamour of publishing and lit fests." But Thayil is pragmatic as well. “We need to go to lit fests to promote our books and we need to promote our books however much we hate it," he says. “But the minute you sell yourself short, your readers will know. Publishers all over the world are looking for great books; trust yourself, trust your readers, and write a great book."

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