The sprawling seven-page prologue of the book — beginning with the words “Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroine of this story...” — is made up of exactly one sentence (lots of punctuations but no full stop until the very end). Well-known as an exceptional poet, Thayil’s debut book delves into the fast-disappearing “Old Bombay” of the ’70s, its underbelly and its opium.
Despite having lived in several places in India, Hong Kong and New York, it was only Mumbai that caught his imagination. “It’s a city I know very well. If you’ve lived in Bombay at all, you’ll see that the city blends in itself all the creative endeavours in such a way that many cities don’t. It is a kind of a muse, even if it’s demanding and perverse,” he says.
While receiving the award on Friday evening, Thayil didn’t hide his joy. “Writers like money. We don’t have a job, but we have bills to pay,” he said, after accepting the $50,000 (Rs 27.50 lakh) prize purse. The prize, however, was followed by his expectations of bad reviews in the country.
“We have no literary culture in India. We have a culture of book journalism, which is a very different thing. We lack genuine literary culture where somebody will read a book the way it’s meant to be and talk about it critically, and also about the various points that the book might bring,” he says. Though he finds western reviews much more enlightening, Thayil concludes that “stupid reviews happen all over the world”.
It’s odd, indeed, how just last year, at the same platform, the author was unceremoniously threatened by Muslim organisations for reading out passages from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. But, to repeat a cliché, the writer is no stranger to controversy. His first libretto for the opera Babur in London wasn’t staged in India last year — Thayil appears dejected about this. Which would he consider worse — the censorship imposed by authorities, or self-censorship by artists as a result of fear? “Between censorship and self-censorship in India, we are left with a very tiny space for art, for it to be reproduced and for it to live. Between the authority and the artists’ self-stifling impulse, what do you do?” he asks, adding, “The most distressing thing about it is that I see it getting worse in the future. There is no solution, certainly not in my lifetime.”
An author, poet and musician, Thayil refuses to be anything else. “I think people know more than enough of me now. I think they are tired of me now,” he says, with a hint of what we suspect on his face, is humour. For now, the artiste/author is wrapped up in another “completely different” fiction which is based on one of the characters of Narcopolis. His band Shridhar/Thayil, with singer Suman Shridhar, is also working on some new material, a project which is still under wraps.
What’s on today
“After the Revolution: New Writing from the Iranian Diaspora”: Session with Laleh Khadivi and Fariba Hatchtroudi, moderated by Reza Aslan.
“A Rebel State”: Bhalchandra Nemade and Jeet Thayil in conversation with Rupleena Bose.
“Saving Face”: Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy in conversation with Shoma Chaudhury.
“Maps of Love and Hate: Nationalism and Arab
Literature”: Ahdaf Soueif, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Selma Dabbagh in conversation with Jonathan Shainin, introduced by William Dalrymple.
“The Song of Achilles”: Madeline Miller in conversation with Anjum Hasan.