“He says there’s no word for ‘despair’ in Malayalam.”
—Malayalam’s Ghazal, Jeet Thayil.
Around two years ago, Jeet Thayil, poet-musician, would be seated every day at his computer in a suburban Bandra flat in Mumbai, typing away for hours. He would write, not stop, keep going till he got to the end, and began again. Money was dwindling, rents were high, he painstakingly told everyone who would listen that he had long forsaken his Baudelairean ways, and despaired that he couldn’t find the time for the company of fellow poets that he longed for. He lived out of suitcases, paintings stacked against the walls, unpacked only his books, and thanked his parents (his father, T.J.S. George, is a Padma Bhushan winner, writer and M.S. Subbulakshmi’s biographer) for being the wise kind of people who invested in their youth so he could lean upon them in his. He had just completed writing the now infamous one-sentence opening of his Man Booker shortlisted novel, Narcopolis, and as he finished reading it out, he chuckled wryly: “They will tell you not to write long sentences, but don’t ever let anyone tell you how to write.”
Today, with the phone ringing off the hook, Thayil, 53, says he is overwhelmed, “It’s been tough enough. The writing of Narcopolis took more than five years, during which time I didn’t have a job. I did have a kind of artist’s grant, in that my parents bought an apartment for me and I lived off the rent. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would not have been able to write this book.”
Established as a poet for decades—Thayil is the author of four collections of poetry: These Errors Are Correct, English, Apocalypso and Gemini—and has edited over five anthologies of poetry—he was the novice of the fiction world. The book launch did not make it easier on him, and he was unprepared for the onslaught of criticism that it elicited from many critics in India. The one-sentence paragraph was called gimmicky, albeit fluid, the writing fractured, the novel plotless, and the depiction of Mumbai, flawed. It was some time before the acclaim began to trickle in from the overseas reviewers, but Thayil, at his launch in early December last year, had already been visibly shaken.
Poetically, Thayil has never been a structurally simple writer, picking sestinas—a complex poetic format with a 39-line verse structure with six stanzas of six lines each—to push himself into structural challenges in a world that is increasingly loosening the formal codes of writing, or adding performance to poetry when the formal was in mode, indeed taking to black opera in music. Challenging structure has always been Thayil’s signature. But in the novel, Thayil seemed to discard all logic of chronology; the novel looped repeatedly from several starting points. The poet could not make the transition to prose, it was said.
He takes the criticism that comes with that profile, he says. “I expected bad reviews in India,” Thayil says. “This is not an easy book: it demands something from the reader and it rewards re-reading. I thought it would find its readers in five or 10 years. The Booker long and short lists speeded up the process and for that I’m tremendously grateful,” he says. There is no edge of vindication in his voice, only overwhelming relief.
The draft of the original Narcopolis was much longer. In its writing, it was part hived into a second book, which is nearing completion and is due for a 2013 launch. A third is also under way. “I am almost done with the second book. Prizes are very nice, in that they make the hard work and isolation and uncomprehending criticism easier to take, but when you’re back at the desk you are prey to all the old anxieties; nothing changes that or makes it easier,” he says.
Thayil has no space right now for the complexities of what a win may entail. “I’m very happy with Narcopolis. I wanted to write it for about three decades, but was unable to for one reason or the other. I always knew it would be a literary novel and I’m glad I didn’t compromise in that area. For many reasons, it’s an unexpected pleasure to be shortlisted.”