2012 Man Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil talks to EXEC about his book, Narcopolis.
Your novel Narcopolis is set in Bombay. Why Bombay, and could you let us in on your relationship with the city?
Many of the people I knew in Bombay during the intoxicated years, they died. I wanted to find a way to honour them, the addicts, prostitutes, poets and petty criminals, in other words, the disenfranchised and marginalized, those who have no place in polite society.
Of the many cities I’ve lived in, I’ve lived in Bombay the longest. I’ve lived there off and on for over fifteen years. There are parts of the city I know very well. I’m thinking of Colaba, Bandra and Bombay Central. And even today there’s that thing that happens when I get off the plane in Bombay, the instant knowledge that I am in my place. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to call any city home, but if you put a gun to my head and ask me to name one I would probably say Bombay.
Did you write the book in Bombay?
I started to write it in Delhi in 2006, then in Bangalore, and finally in Bombay. It made little difference to me where I was. I was living in a city that was in my head, a city that no longer existed. In a way, it was better to not be living in Bombay. And by the time I was almost done with writing the book, I found myself back in Bandra, and it didn’t feel like I was living in the city I was describing.
How was the writing process like?
I worked on the book for about five years. It went through many changes. For one thing, I cut it down from a manuscript of about six hundred pages to three hundred pages. The most productive period was during the last year or so. I would work until late, then wake and go straight back to work when I was still in that hazy state. This helped me make connections and associations that would not have occurred later in the day.
You’re a songwriter, guitarist and a poet as well. How did that happen?
I began to write poems the same time I started playing the guitar, around the age of thirteen. Discovering poetry and music changed everything. It was a way of discovering my self and my place in the world.
And it was the seventies, a high, crazy time: we thought we were reinventing the concepts of art, morality, money and love. Of course we weren’t; all we did was put new twists on the old systems. I don’t know if any of it helped to shape my subsequent career. I think career may be just another word for bloody-mindedness, you keep doing what you do until it pays off.
How different is writing fiction from writing poetry?
Writing a novel is hard work, as opposed to writing a poem, which is essentially an ecstatic activity. With a novel, the process is lengthened and more fraught. The novelist is the lonely long-distance runner and the poet is the ecstatic sprinter. They are two separate life forms. That said, poetry, fiction, a libretto, it’s all the same: it’s all writing.
The book toys with addiction in its many forms. Isn’t this a recurring theme in most of your books?
I’ve always thought that sex and drugs were Bombay’s secret history, hidden between the lines of its official history, which concerns money and glamour. Every character in Narcopolis is an addict of some kind. Most are drug addicts, but there are also violence addicts, god addicts, sex and alcohol addicts, and beauty addicts. For the characters living in the book, addiction is the only means of exaltation and of escape. A lot of themes that occur in my poems and in Narcopolis revolves around addiction, but it isn’t addiction alone. Death, sex, madness and transformation are fairly constant motifs. And there are references to imaginary works of art, usually books, but also music, film and painting.
About The Book
Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city’s underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of characters that includes poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters works and patronizes the venue. Decades pass to reveal a changing Bombay, where opium has given way to heroin from Pakistan and violence has moved in, even though the use of sex as primary release and recreation stays the same. Yet despite the bleakness of their surroundings, the search for beauty continues. After a long absence, the narrator returns in 2004 to find a very different Bombay. Those he knew are almost all gone, but the passion he feels for them and for the city is revealed.