Book Talk: Booker nominee Thayil offers bleak Bombay portrait


By Anuja Jaiman

NEW DELHI, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Jeet Thayil, one of thenominees for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for the year's best novelin English, paints a stark portrait of Mumbai, or Bombay as hecalls it, in his debut novel "Narcopolis".

Thayil is a poet and musician who has been writing poetrysince he was 13. His novel takes the reader through the Mumbaidrug world's smoky alleys and features the musings of opiumaddicts in the late 1980s - a situation that Thayil, a formeropium addict himself, knows well.

Thayil spoke with Reuters about his deep relationship withBombay, his addiction and how this book came about.

The Man Booker prize will be announced Oct 16. Q: What is your connection with Bombay?

A: "I went to school there as a boy. I went to St. Xavier's.My family left for Hong Kong when I was eight where my fatherwas working as a journalist. Then I went to school in New Yorkand then came back to Bombay in 1979 and joined Wilson College.In all, I've lived in Bombay for almost 20 years."

Q: Does this make you feel strongly about the city?

A: "Bombay does that to people. It makes a (connection) withyou. It makes it difficult for you. It bludgeons you. I've beenreading about that area, Shuklaji street. It is disappearing now- Kamatipura, Shuklaji street, (the) entire area between MumbaiCentral and Grant Road is disappearing, being bought away byreal estate sharks who are buying up all the broken-down housesand making tall buildings. So very soon that entire districtwill disappear, and with it a million stories. A look of Bombaywill go... a certain character will go. Those people who livethere now of course won't be able to afford to live there.

"At the end of 'Narcopolis', I have tried to draw thatpicture a little bit - that Bombay will become a veryuniform-looking place. The kind of variety you used to be ableto find there � like dockyards, for example. It will bear ahigh-rise tenement kind of look uniformly."

Q: How do you look at this change?

A: "No question, for bad. Not saying purely in a nostalgicway, I mean also politically. The political changes that havehappened, the kind of changes that have happened in terms ofmoney. The way the rich have become constantly richer while thepoor are exactly where they were. So the divide has become evenlarger than what it was. And the whole right-wing thing that'shappening in Bombay. The way outsiders, people of othercommunities, are made to feel unwelcome. These are the kind ofthings that one could have never imagined in Bombay. It waswelcoming. Anybody with talent, ambition, with beauty, withbrains � you could make it in Bombay. That is the point of thiscity. One thing after the other has been chipped away."

Q: In an interview you used the word "seductive" for Bombay.In "Narcopolis", words seem to come from under a cloud of smoke.Is there a parallel you have drawn between opium and Mumbai?

A: "That's kind of hinted at in the book where the changefrom Bombay to Mumbai takes place ... It's the change from thisold 19th century romantic, glamorous, quiet, slow world of opiumto the quick, brutal, modern, degrading world of cheap heroin.Interestingly, now there has been a class shift - it's thepoorest who do it, absolute down-and-out street guys. When opiumwas happening, it was respectable. The well off did it, theupper-class Urdu-speaking ... it had a whole culture with it."

Q: Was writing "Narcopolis" difficult?

A: "It took me five years to write it in all ... I wasworking on a lot of (other things) as well. I didn't realizewhat the nature of the difficulty would be. And what it turnedout to be was the opposite of catharsis. Catharsis gets stuffout of you. But this put bad feelings into me. Thinking aboutthe nature of addiction, which I hadn't done in all those years.I had to be clean to think about it ... what it takes out ofyou, what it gives you. It gives you a lot. Wonderful things,which I know I'm not supposed to say, but it's a fact. It givesyou a sense of being loved. There is no boredom ever, timebecomes your slave, or the slave of your agenda. There is neveran existential question. It gives you freedom in a way."

Q: How do you look back at the addiction phase? A: "I look back at it with yearning. It's a bad thing!"

Q: There is a very important character named Dimple in thebook - a eunuch who makes pipes in the opium den and identifiesas a woman. Was she based on a real person?

A: "She was the one who made pipes in an opium den in about1980-81. I only saw her twice. Then she disappeared. Many peoplein that world disappear. There was something about the way sheused to make the pipe, very elegant."

Q: Why the long sentences?

A: "The opening sentence, the prologue, I wrote that abouthalfway through the writing of the book, and when I wrote thatsentence, I realized this is the way the book should be. And Irewrote the book, changing the language of it with longsentences ... rather than short sentences because I realized theonly way to write about opium was to write long, open-endedsentences where the writer who is writing it has no idea wherethe sentence is going to go. So you follow it and there is asense of discovery - for the reader as well, I hope. Youcouldn't write a book about opium, which is a very slow, longprocess, with short quick Hemingway, journalistic, telegraphicsentences. So once I kind of stumbled on that, it changedeverything. Then the book happened very fast."

(Reporting by Anuja Jaiman, editing by Elaine Lies)

((anuja.jaiman@thomsonreuters.com. Phone: +91 1141781027.Reuters Messaging: anuja.jaiman.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))