Exploring India’s Dark Heart: On Jeet Thayil And Narcopolis

Jeet Thayil has taken the subcontinent’s publishing scene by storm since the publication of Narcopolis, which documents the underworld of contemporary Mumbai and has won an array of prizes. Thayil is now being hailed as the leading light of a new generation of Indian novelists, who are willing to take on the less salubrious realities of life in the world’s largest democracy.

Photograph by Basso Cannarsa | Images courtesy Faber and Faber.

It seems unbecoming to admit it, but the prime reason for my initial interest in Jeet Thayil and his work stemmed from the man’s family relationships. Born in Kerala, Thayil is the son of TJS George – the columnist extraordinaire – who writes hard-hitting articles on politics and society for the New Indian Express. His sister too, is a well-known journalist. Thayil was married to Shakti Bhatt, a revered blogger and editor. Tragically, she passed away in 2007, at a very young age, of a brief illness. She was immensely popular amongst literary circles, and the government has even instituted an award in her honour.

It is easy to assume that writing would thus have come easily to Thayil. But he’s a performance poet and musician too, having picked these talents up during his early years growing up in Hong Kong, New York; and Bombay – the subject of his 2011 novel, Narcopolis. This beguiling work has been awarded with a Booker short list nomination, the DSC Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize for 2012. Variously described as ‘poetic’ and ‘surreal’, apart from ‘bleak’ and ‘meandering’, the novel has succeeded in drawing attention to contemporary Indian writing once again. Largely drawn from the author’s own experiences, the book centres on the goings-on in an opium den in Mumbai in the ‘70s. It showcases the rapidly evolving city vis-à-vis an enchanting tapestry of characters including peddlers, pimps, eunuchs and prostitutes. In fact these magnetic and utterly degenerate characters are what keep the otherwise lofty narrative grounded and make us empathise with the understated protagonist, as he recounts his experiences with them. The book is extremely well-written to that end. A case in point is the following line:

Faber and Faber

‘Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts, the rage addicts, the poverty addicts , and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and the tenderness the substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency.’

This hallucinatory, grimy gem of a debut novel constantly reminded me of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting for its ability to make the audience see the world with its psychedelically distorted but earnest vision. It is nowhere close to a complete story, but an assortment of memories about a changing, yet eternally beautifully city.

Thayil had published a number of poetry-collections previously, such as These Errors are Correct, an anthology of musings on love and loss; and ‘English’, which contains these wonderfully evocative lines:

‘If tonight the mind is queasy,
drawing thoughts like flies, he
is fine too with every crazy

scheme you devise, none crazier
than this pilgrimage to a pier
that seems to have disappeared,

leaving you seaborne at last,
ahead of you the past,
and all its famous cities lost.’

In many of these poems, Thayil draws inspiration from history, literature and juxtaposes it with modern imagery to present fascinating articulations of his subconscious. Appropriately, he edited the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets in 2008.

Jeet Thayil belongs to a brave new generation of Indian authors; a breed that challenges established norms of writing, and doesn’t fear controversy when furthering its opinion. While presenting Narcopolis at the Jaipur Literary Fest in 2012, he had this to say about Salman Rushdie’s ban in India: ‘It seems (that especially here) there is a contingent of people at every gathering looking at a sentence or a gesture to get offended. It is cheapening of the idea of rebellion’. This is a sentiment that the entire younger generation in India, including yours truly, finds agreeable. But it drew the ire of fundamentalist groups in the country, who chastised his nomination for the Booker Prize as a systematic attempt to undermine their community. Needless to say, Thayil – of the brave new Indian generation – wasn’t bogged down by these brickbats, and went about writing, gracefully. This sort of courage and conviction, largely unheard of for many years, is a great sign of changing times in the sub-continent.
By Pratiek Samantara

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