When I finished writing ‘Narcopolis’ I could not do anything for a year: Jeet Thayil

By Resham Sengar | Updated: Feb 14, 2013, 16:01 PM IST

The suave journalist turned author, Jeet Thayil, whose novel ‘Narcopolis’ is a name to be reckoned with is one of the best Indian literary novels. The slew of awards and applauses that this book has been garnering ever since its release, testify that fact pretty transparently. Writing the book was not an easy task for Jeet, nor did he expect any instant fame, but he is glad that his efforts have paid off. Resham Sengar of Zeenews.com got a chance to sit down with this genius of an author and get to know more about his winning work and more unknown facts revolving around it.

Congratulations Jeet! You have been a strong contender for the prestigious Man Asian Prize 2012 and the Man Booker Prize 2012. And your recent win is the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2013. How do you feel at being the man of the moment? Had you expected this kind of fame and adulation?

Absolutely not! In fact, I expected to be obscure for a long time with this novel because ‘Narcopolis’ is a literary novel and I thought that it won’t find its readers so quickly. So for me, this is a complete surprise and I am very grateful.

In one of your earlier interviews, you’d said that you wanted to honour the people you knew in the opium dens – the marginalised, the addicted and the deranged people – who are the lowest of the low. My question is that in what sense had you used the word ‘honour’ in the statement that you’d made. Does that mean that you aimed to glorify the druggies?

No, not at all. By using the word ‘honour’, I meant to give them the complexity and dignity and depth as characters in the novel that they deserve. And the point is that they deserve as much attention as the characters from the upper classes, middle class or from a Royal family. For me that was a great pleasure; a delight and excitement in writing a book like ‘Narcopolis’.

Are there some other aspects of the times you spent in those opium dens that you feel you refrained from writing about in the novel?

I hope not, because if I find something like that, I will feel sad wishing that I would have put that in the book. But of course, there are things I feel I missed writing about. If I were writing the book now, there are things I would have added to it. But going down that road leads to madness, though I try not to think about it.

Who or what inspired you to write ‘Narcopolis’?

It was a story about a world and people who no longer existed and I wanted to create a kind of a memorial for them, a way to remember them because they were people unknown when they were alive and they were unborn after their death. I believed that it is my job to give them that recognition.

Is your novel an autobiographical work or some bits of it are fictional too?

It is not at all fictional. The autobiographical element is in the details of the book. I tried to keep my personal history and autobiography out of it because did not want to write another autobiographical novel.

You have described the course of writing the novel as “the opposite of catharsis” because the entire process put bad feelings into you. Please elucidate this phrase.

People think when you write about an experience, it is a way of exercising some demons out of your mind. All the horror of the drug life that I had left, while I was writing this book I had to come back to. And when I finished writing this book I could not do anything for a year. I felt paralysed. Catharsis is supposed to free you and make you feel lighter but I felt much disturbed.

What all roadblocks did you face in the process of writing the novel and getting it published?

Most of the roadblocks were financial because I had quit my journalism job in NY to become a full time writer and there was the question of how I was going to finance myself while working on the book. My parents gave me a small amount every month and within that I paid my rent, I ate and I put petrol in my car. And that’s how I lived for all those years while writing my book.Salman Rushdie has praised you in one of his recent interviews and has said that you are one of the most promising literary figures in India. What do you like to say about such a compliment coming from a novelist of such a high stature?

Really? Did he say so? Well, I am absolutely honoured.

Readers are curious to know what you are writing next.

I am working on a new book and I hope to finish in a month or two and it will be released in a year.

Please name some books that you would love to read and re-read.

‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy and ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ by Thomas Pynchon. Also, I want to read Salman Rushdie’s novel which is not available in India, but I will borrow a copy of the book from someone and read it, maybe.

Last but not the least, how would you describe yourself as a person?

I would describe myself as a working man.