If there was recently written a more seductive novel than Jeet Thayil’s “Narcopolis”, I’d like to get my hands on it. This story of the lives, the illusions and the deaths that take place inside and around Rashid’s opium den, is read as a fascinating portrait of Bombay – a portrait of the city that once was. The Indian writer, poet, songwriter and musician -by the way, he sounds almost scandalously talented- came to the city at the invitation of the Berlin International Literature Festival, but will be staying for some time.
You must be quite a brave writer: Narcopolis’ prologue consists of a single sentence that goes on for six and a half pages. Were you not at least a little worried that this would alienate many readers ?
I knew that there would be some readers who would be turned off by that sentence. That they would see the sentence, decide they cannot read the book, close it and set it aside. But I also knew that there would be some readers who would see that sentence and be very interested in reading on. So, yes, I was aware that this first sentence was a bit of a risk to take, but it seemed like a worthwhile risk.
I found it even takes a little longer than expected to actually read this first sentence. One feels almost obliged to go over the words leisurely, as if being slowly enveloped in heavy opium clouds. There’s something even alluring about the way it’s written. Was this your intention, to make the reader feel as if stepping inside an opium den?
Rather as if stepping inside an opium experience. It’s an experience that resembles a waking dream state. You are awake but you’re dreaming. Your eyes are closed but you’re aware of everything around you, even of what people are saying, but at the same time you’re dreaming very heavily. And the minute you open your eyes these dreams vanish. But your eyes keep nodding off. Which is why the opium experience is called nodding. And it is a very open-ended, kind of circular state that connects and associates things. In many ways, it is very improvisatory. It’s like improvisation music, or word association poetry; every word you might hear, any piece of conversation, or any music you might hear, will be incorporated in that dream and transform it.
Only two and a half years after I had started work on Narcopolis, did it occur to me that the style and the voice of the book should be about long sentences: Sentences that begin, continue and end in a way that the reader gets the feeling that the writer himself didn’t know where the sentence would go, that he discovered it as he was writing. I wanted that sense of improvisation, of chance, of absolute open-endedness to be there, so that there are no conclusions, so that it just goes on and on. It was very important to me to discover that voice.
The character who initially introduces us to the story -a man who has fled to Bombay from New York- very quickly after this introduction disappears for the longest of time. Why did you send him off?
I find him to be the least interesting character in the book. Because in many ways he was the most in common with me.
Is that why you chose him to put the story into motion?
To put it into motion and to frame the story. And then, to appear once more at the end and tie up various loose ends. In many ways he is really a non-character, he is a framing technique. He is there just to provide a voice in some ways and to contextualize the things that happen in the book. Because he is a very definite product of the Indian middle class, unlike most of the other characters in the book. They are absolutely of a very outsider Indian class, if not caste, so he is contrasting a very comfortable middle class life versus the kind of squalor that the other characters inhabit.
There is an elegance about these characters that inhabit the margins of society. Or is this elegance maybe a goodwill gesture on the part of the middle class narrator?
I think that more that anything, t might have been a kind of function of sentimentality. Or even, yes, a goodwill gesture. Rather a kind of sentimental gesture. Because in real life the people who inhabit that world are not exactly elegant. They are often as brutal as anyone else.
Are they based on real people that you have come along?
They are absolutely based on the people that I knew. But what happens when you write fiction is that by the end of the book, the character that you created and the character that you might have based him on have almost nothing in common. A visual likeness might be all they share.
Dimple, the protagonist of Narcopolis, a eunuch who feels more like a girl than a boy, brought to mind the blind prophet of greek mythology…
…Teiresias, of course.
Was that your intention all along?
Yes. A character who has been both man and woman is an immensely powerful device for a writer. Because you can get that character to say things that other characters could not say. Dimple makes these grand pronouncements about men and women that sound absolutely genuine. You believe her, because you know who she is and where she comes from. Somebody who is either a man or a woman would not be able to speak with as much authority.
Why did you place Narcopolis in Bombay? What was the plan and plot, when you decided to write this story?
There was no other city the story could be placed in, it had to be Bombay. I had always wanted to tell the story of Bombay over those years and especially the story of that culture, that vanished so quickly and which I had experienced. I arrived in Bombay in 1979 and in 1984 that world had ended and heroin arrived. A lot of the people I knew from that time are now gone. They didn’t survive the drugs and they didn’t survive that life. I saw what happened to so many people. I also moved from opium to heroin. I felt there had to be a way of chronicling that.
What’s the story of your addiction? How did you get hooked to opium?
Two weeks after I arrived in Bombay to do a BA, I was 19 years old, a friend took me to an opium den. I walked in the door of that place and saw it. Even before I smoked a pipe I was hooked. In one word it was romance. It was just utterly romantic; in a very literary way. I had grown up on De Quincey and Baudelaire and the English Romantics and I suddenly couldn’t believe what was before my eyes.
What was that opium den like?
It was a big room where everything was conducted at floor level. There were three pipes. Everything was very clean. And there was absolute silence, people were talking in whispers. It was afternoon, but the room was dark. There was no direct sunlight, only slants of sun that would come in at certain times and then the opium smoke would grow like a cloud and explode into those slants. And the smell inside the den was something I had never smelled before, but it was like I had always known it. It is a very familiar smell to a human. And then there was the taste of it, and of course the effect of it that got me hooked.
But much more than that, I believe it was the ritual: The way that the pipe was prepared and the sense of tradition and history and beauty that you got in this world. It was all so quiet, methodical and gentle. Nothing was hurried, everything had to be done in its proper order. Every day had a ritual. The way the pipe was prepared, the way that customers arrived, the way that the boss appeared. The only way I could attempt to explain the feeling one had inside that den, would be to compare it with the feeling one may have in a place of worship.
It sounds like you are describing a spiritual experience.
I hate to say it, because it sounds crazy to call opium a spiritual experience, but it was.
While you were an addict, did you go on with your life, completing your studies and embarking on a career?
Absolutely. In fact I was a high functioning addict. I started to work immediately after completing my studies, as a journalist. I had many jobs with many newspapers and I rarely missed deadlines. But I was using heroin throughout. And that was true of me for a little over twenty years.
How did you ever pull it off?
It is a cliche that a junkie is the guy on the street. The truth is that some junkies continue to live and work and have families. I sometimes think that, in my case, the kind of protestant work ethic that my parents brainwashed me with was even stronger than the heroin ethic.
What about another cliche, according to which addiction is connected to creativity? Is there truth to it?
No, it’s bullshit. But it’s a cliche that I had bought into.
But you still did manage to write poetry.
I was writing terrible poetry. I am so glad that most of it is destroyed. That’s the thing about addiction: it’s a full time job. From the minute you wake up in the morning you are on a clock. And it’s a very urgent clock, because if you don’t get drugs by a certain time, you’re sick. And it is a horrible sickness. Addiction is an engine that drives you, all day. It takes up your life. That’s why the writing was so bad. The only kind of writing I could do was short form. By that I mean poetry and journalism, the kind of writing that one can do in a burst, in a few hours. I could never have written a novel at that time.
In your experience, what makes an addict? Do you think there are one or two particular characteristics that may trigger addiction or make people get addicted to something?
I hate to say it, but I can’t help thinking it’s something genetic or something you’re born with. Because there’s no explanation why somebody with no complaints about the world or about their lives would get addicted. And you know, the thing is it is not easy to become an addict. You don’t become an addict overnight, it’s not physically possible. You have to work at it very hard.
What was it like for you?
With opium, even if you want to become an addict and you decide I want to be an addict and you start from day one, it will take at least three weeks before you’re physically addicted. And meanwhile, as you are doing opium every day, you are vomiting. But you do continue. That’s what I mean when I say it is a serious job to become an addict.
Was it hard to quit?
It was very hard. Actually, I kept on trying to quit for many years. And during those years, I quit twenty or twenty-five times. I went to rehab a couple of times and I went to a detox many times, but sooner or later I woud always go back. Until I joined a methadone program in New York, in 2002.
So methadone works after all.
No, methadone doesn’t work, but I made it work. I was an exception. At that centre in New York, I was told I was the first person in that program to have used methadone to get off drugs, completely. Most people just stay on methadone – and that’s what the US government wants, they want to put heroin addicts on methadone for their whole lives. Only methadone is in some ways far worse. Because you get it every day, all the while increasing your dose, and then your teeth fall out and your bones are destroyed.
At some point, in Narcopolis, heroin comes into the picture. Then cocaine appears, too. This transition corresponds with intense political tensions and social upheavals. Is this how things actually happened or is it a coincidence?
As heroin arrived in the mid ‘80s, followed later by cocaine, all of that stuff that I describe happened; the rise of the extremist far right, then the riots, the real-estate fever, the increased criminality, the money…So, is it a coincidence? It is possible that it might be a coincidence, but I don’t think so. I think it’s a symptom. And that it is absolutely normal that all of it happened at the same time.
As one reads on, the people in your book become more cynical, everybody becomes tougher and violence at some points becomes unbearable.
It does. And I think that right now in Bombay that violence is a fact of life. Someone who is around 15 or 20 years old and lives in Bombay would see that violence as the reality. This kind of devisive hatred, and fear that pervade life in Bombay. All that seems natural, that’s what they think the city is like. And that is exactly the opposite of what Bombay was.
You are always talking about Bombay, never Mumbai.
Yes, that’s true. In fact I think there are a number of writers of Bombay -including Salman Rushdie- who also never use the m-word. It is a very deliberate political stance. Because Bombay and Mumbai are two different cities, which will never meet.
In what way are they different?
Bombay is a city of elegance, of tolerance, of beauty and innocence, a city with a work ethic and a place that was welcoming. Any newcomer, any immigrant was welcome in Bombay. If you had certain attributes, for instance capacity for hard work or talent or ambition, Bombay rewarded you. Mumbai is completely different. Mumbai is ran by the Hindu right wing, it divides people according to their religious communities and it divides people across caste lines, along economical lines. It’s a closed place. And it gets more closed every day. For anyone who knew Bombay in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘or 70s, to see Bombay today, it is to witness a sobering and very depressing transition.
Does Bombay then exist only in memory and in literature? Has it been taken over by Mumbai?
It has been taken over and it will never come back. I am not being pessimistic, I am being realistic. I can feel the fever among the people on the street. But most importantly I see the people who are in charge, I see the administration. I see how cynical and manipulative they are, how carefully they use the resentments and frustrations of the Hindu working class and turn it against the Muslims and the Christians and even against Hindus from other states. And I see how long they have been doing it for and how similarly the younger members of that party are behaving. This is the future for Bombay, it is not going to change, it is impossible.
Were you born in Bombay?
No, I was born in Kerala, but I’ve lived in Bombay more than I have lived in any other place. I grew up in Hong Kong, I went to school there -I went to a few schools there- and then I went to Bombay to do a BA and ended up staying there for many, many years. And I always kept coming back.
Where do you live now?
In Delhi, except that I haven’t been there in months. I have been travelling a lot.
Do you avoid travelling to Bombay these days?
Oh, no. I go as often as I can. I love it. It’s still physically the same city. They can’t change that. I get off the plane and I just get into a taxi and I can feel it; this vibe of Bombay. There’s something about Bombay that no other city has. It has a lot to do with the sea. And there is something about the people, there is a real sense of community. Whoever you are, however much money you may have, you feel a connection to everybody else. Because living in Bombay is so difficult.
What was the book’s reception in India?
It was uniformly negative. For the first few months after the book was published, every review that appeared, every mention that was made about Narcopolis was negative. There was not one voice that said this is a good book. I thought that whatever people thought about the book, at least in terms of literary fiction they would have a few good things to say. But in fact quite a few reviewers only talked about the first sentence. And then I thought maybe that was all they read.
What was the negative criticism about?
Well, in India there’s no such thing as critical book journalism. There are very few literary critics. Those who actually swallow a book, you can count on one hand. Instead there are journalists who write about books in a very superficial way. Most of them just get a deadline, which is always last week, so of course they are not going to read 300 pages. They google the title and whatever the last two reviewers before them wrote about the book, they repeat in their own words.
That’s why the reviews for Narcopolis had all started to sound the same. It really upset me because I had worked for five and a half years on that book, I thought I had done something worthwhile, something that hadn’t been done before in Indian fiction. And whatever it is, I knew that it is a love letter to Bombay. I thought people would at least appreciate it, that they would at least appreciate the fact that it revisits a forgotten part of Bombay’s history. But one after the other, the reviews slammed it. There was a time when I didn’t want to get out of bed.
Did those reviewers reconsider after Narcopolis was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize?
What first happened was that the reviews started to come in from the US and the UK. And they were all good. And then the book was shortlisted for the prize and the tide turned, totally and overnight.
You earlier mentioned that you grew up in Hong Kong. Was it hard to be an Indian boy in Hong Kong?
Yes it was. Actually the Chinese are a very special kind of racists. In the sense that most racists are racist towards people of a different skin colour, while Chinese racists are racist towards everybody who is not Chinese. So one could say that it’s a very open, democratic kind of racism. You don’t take it personally. Even the language for foreigners is eloquent in that sense. The word for anyone who is not from China, is “foreign devil”. And then they have different words for people of different countries and different races, and they’re all derogatory. Now, however, things are different. I went to Hong Kong a couple of time last year and I noticed that there is a difference, that people are much more accepting and much friendlier. But it was not so while I was growing up. Not at all.
Your father is a distinguished journalist and a writer. Did you grow up around books?
I grew up to the sound of the typewriter. And there always were a lot of books in the house. I think the first novels I read as an eight- or nine-year-old were abridged versions of the classics. Those old abridged versions were very close to the original. My father would buy me all these novels -The Man in the Iron Mask, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure island, The Swiss Family Robinson. We had this huge collection of books, so I read all of them and then very quickly, by the age of twelve, I was reading books that my father did not approve of.
For example Catch-22, which I read at twelve or thirteen. That’s the right age to read Catch-22. That same year I also read The Catcher in the Rye, and I loved them both. My father found Catch-22 and he was very angry, he confiscated it. So I got another copy and that time he really lost it, he tore it. Which made him feel terrible – in India you don’t treat books roughly, you revere them. But he was so angry that he tore it. Then I got a third copy and that copy I hid very well. I think that my father’s reaction taught me that reading some books is a subversive act which may upset people. That made reading really attractive to me. I think it just probably made me a lifelong reader.
Do you find that you have changed as a reader since you became a writer yourself?
No, I still read the same way, which is very rarely with any system. But I’m always reading, sometimes two books at the same time. However when I’m working on a book, I don’t read for many hours a day.
What were you reading during those five and a half years during which you were writing Narcopolis?
The book I read and re-read during that time was The Brothers Karamazov. In it I discovered the courage in Dostoevsky to do a kind of fiction that doesn’t go from A to B or from 1 to 2, linearely. Dostoevsky goes from A to C, D, E, F, G, H…and then he gets to B. But he makes it like a thriller! This book is a page-turner, you can’t stop reading. Which makes you think what would happen today were a writer to turn up at Random House with the manuscript of The Brothers Karamazov.
What do you think would happen?
I think it would go straight into the garbage pile. They would say that it is undisciplined. “Come on, a 25-page digression on god? You can’t have that kind of thing, cut it out!”
Are there any other writers or poets that you return to?
The poetry I read is always poetry that I re-read. There are some brilliant American poets from the mid to late 20th century that I go back to a lot: Franz Wright, his father James Wright, Thomas Lux, Vijay Seshadri, James Tate, Jack Gilbert, Bill Knott.
Υou obviously do not feel that poetry has to be read in solitude, since you also perform some of your poems.
There are some poems that I have written that I would never read on stage in public, because they wouldn’t work. These are poems that one has to read on the page in order to see the way the rhymes, the stanzas work. Those poems are often very strict in form. But the kind of poems that I read when I am doing a performance -horrible word, we need to invent a better one- are always poems that one gets quickly and easily. I pick those poems because I know that at a poetry reading you are sometimes competing with rock bands and comedians, so you don’t want people running out of the room. You have to keep their attention by aiming yourself at the fractured attention span, which actually is the modern attention span. So you’d better not plan on reading an epic.
So Homer would not stand a chance at such an event?
Actually Homer would definitely stand a chance. He was a bard, he knew how to hold a room and he could fill it with his voice. And it was not the page, it was the stage. He was illiterate, it was all memorized. It was all spoken, memorized poetry and it was meant to catch your attention. He would be a great performance poet. He actually was one, he was the first one.
Do you know a lot of poems by heart?
I do, yes. I learned that in school. Sadly that’s a skill that if you don’t practice, you lose. Whenever I teach poetry I give exercises of memorization. There are certain poems that are very easy to memorize. And it is very interesting that when people come to a certain poem and they try to memorize it, this process opens it up for them.
You also write and perform music as one part of the music project Sridhar / Thayil. Would you help me imagine your style?
We just did our first album and you can hear it online. It’s quite hard to describe our sound. I work with Suman Sridhar who sings opera, western classical, jazz and Indian classical. In fact she is really a jazz singer, but she grew up studying Indian classical music. And I play the guitar, I write songs – twisted pop songs- and I do spoken word.
Are you writing another novel?
I am, yes. This one takes place in Delhi and New York.
You have also lived in New York. For how long?
The last time I was there, I stayed for six years. I was working as a journalist.
What kind of journalism did you do?
The horrible kind. And the worst part of my awful journalistic career was the end of it. I was with a newspaper in New York called India Abroad, for four and a half years. It is one of the worst newspapers on earth. Let me give you a little story. When I first joined it I was doing book reviews. So the editor came to me and said “look these are the books. Read the back cover copy and the page about the author. After all I only need 900 words. Please do not read the books.” Because if I read the books I would be wasting her time. I could be writing something else for her during that time. She was clear: do not read the books. Is that what you tell a books editor? Can you imagine what kind of newspaper that was?
But you stayed there.
I had no choice. I was in New York, I was an immigrant and I needed the money. I had a drug habit.
How long are you staying in Berlin?
I’m staying until November. People have been telling me the weather is not exactly beautiful at this time of the year, so I’m hoping to get some work done.
It depends on the kind of weather one finds beautiful. Some people like a dark skies and heavy clouds.
I do like them.