Thief of Dreams: An Interview with Jeet Thayil
The crowd swirls between tables at the Jaipur Literature Festival Writers’ Ball. Jeet Thayil is standing at the soup station, ladling soup into a bowl. It’s January and the open-air party is happening in the middle of a lake. Soup is a good idea. I recognize Jeet immediately by his trademark Fedora hat, which he has worn throughout the festival. Taking a deep breath, I jump into a conversation and ask him for an interview. He says he will give the interview, but over email, after a week. He is exhausted.
“I’ve been answering the same questions in every interview for the last five days.”
“What questions are those?” I ask him.
“Well… how it was different writing prose from poetry, for example.”
Before writing his multi-award-nominated novel, Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil was already an established poet. He had authored four collections of poetry, so it was a surprise to the literary world when he decided to switch genres.
We are now standing in front of each other, holding our bowls of soup and straddling that awkward fence in the conversation where we have to transition from work talk to general chit chat.
“So, how was it different writing prose from poetry?” I jest.
He takes my question seriously. This could turn out to be a professional faux pas, but his expression is priceless.
It is spring and Lahore is giddy with the high of its own world-class literary festival. This time I recognize Jeet by his trademark glasses. He’s sitting two rows down from me in Alhamra’s Hall 1, watching a flute performance. After a few minutes, he slips out with H.M. Naqvi and another friend. I believe for an instant that my interview opportunity has slipped out with him, but this is not rational, I know.
The interview finally happens at the Desi Writers Lounge information booth, which I cannot leave because our volunteers have raced off to attend Mohsin Hamid’s session. I present Jeet my only copy of Narcopolis, purchased from India, so he can sign it for my sister-in-law. He signs it, but first draws a full portrait of himself on the title page, in blue ink. Illustrated Jeet’s eyes are blue crosses; his head is like a skull.
“This should be interesting,” I think.
A.A. So, Narcopolis starts with this incredible one-sentence prologue narrated by a person on an opium high. I would like very much to talk about dreams/dream-like states as an instrument of escape. What inspired that chapter?
J.T. Dreams were a fundamental element in the formal structure of Narcopolis. I researched dreams when I wrote this book, because that’s what opium does: it opens up the gates of dreams until your dreams leak into real life. During the writing of it I asked everybody I knew to tell me their dreams and if they told me something interesting I’d use it. I began to feel like a thief of dreams.
Dreams also influenced the novel stylistically, for instance in the prologue. I favored long sentences that went all over the place and came back to where they began – full of digression, like dreams.
A.A. Does employing dreams as a technique make it easier for you to say things without committing to them politically?
J.T. It’s not a question of not committing, because it’s very clear where the author’s feelings and opinions lie. I just find it more interesting as a reader to not be told what something is about. The minute I’m told, I’m no longer as interested. I want some things left unsaid, just hinted at. I want to do some work, as a reader.
Dreams are a powerful way of commenting on characters, on events, without actually saying it in so many words. You leave it open, you leave it up to the reader to decide. It sort of works like poetry. As a poet, you work with the idea that less is more. I think that’s what the power of it comes from.
Jeet Thayil – Photo by Afia Aslam
A.A. Given your own history of drug use, how do you relate to the idea of retreating from reality? Why is that important to you as a writer and as a person?
J.T. It’s not important to me as a person. I never used drugs to escape, when I was using them. If anything, they took you into the real world – right into the heart of the real world. You had to deal with criminals, death, addiction, poverty. For me, it was a way of getting into something that I would never have known in the course of my normal life, which was typical and middle-class. I went to Jesuit schools, always to English medium schools. My father was a journalist and we travelled all over India and the world. We lived in Bombay, Patna, Hong Kong, New York. And I had a perfectly happy childhood. I had no excuse for getting into drugs, into that world, but I did, that’s just the truth of it. I think I was hungry for experience, however dangerous or self-destructive it turned out to be.
A.A. What did it teach you about life? Did it actually help you to become a whole person?
J.T. Absolutely not. In fact it did the opposite. It fragments you; it fragments you into many different pieces instead of making you a whole person.
A.A. You’ve written about the ugly dynamics of city life. The Delhi gang rape was just one of the recent examples of this. There is so much violence in cities and it’s increasing. How do you feel about that? How do you use it creatively?
J.T. When people say that I wrote a horrifying book, that it’s dark and that there are parts in it that they find disturbing, I’m always surprised. I want to ask them, “Do you not read the newspapers? When you walk on the streets, do you walk with your eyes closed and your ears shut? Do you have blinders on?”
If you have your ears and eyes open you’re going to find a lot that’s horrifying in any city in South Asia. If there is violence on the streets of an Indian city, for the writer the way to respond is to put violence in the streets of his novel. That’s how I deal with it. I write about it.
A.A. How much of this is influenced by what you think may be popular with the reading public or with the publisher?
J.T. If I were interested in that or worried about that, I would never have writtenNarcopolis. It was rejected by most Indian publishers. It was too violent, too dark, too edgy. I knew when I was writing it that that a lot of people wouldn’t like it. But I wasn’t writing it for those people; I wasn’t writing for that moment. I had a more long-term view. And because I was coming from a tradition of literary fiction, it made perfect sense to write a book that way. I thought it would take a long time for Narcopolis to find its readership but it happened quickly because of certain events.
A.A. Tell me more about your relationship with your prose. How attached are you to what you write?
J.T. I’m attached to what I write while I write it. After it’s done, I try not to read it, because I know if I do I will have all kinds of nits to pick.
Narcopolis surprised me in every way. I had no idea I’d stored so much information about a long gone city and long dead people. And I didn’t know the novel was such a capacious, stretchable, all-embracing form. When the book was done, I was both relieved and distressed. It felt like grief to let it go. I was very lonely for a while, and paralysed. I’m glad that has passed.
A.A. A number of people have described this feeling of not wanting to let go of a novel. Hanif said it feels like you’ve lost a lover.
J.T. Worse. It feels like you’ve lost your whole family. People you’ve been living with for years and years.
It is summer and I am in Karachi, the city where the killing never seems to stop. It also seems that everyone who is writing in Karachi is writing about the city. Here, you don’t need to go looking on the streets for reality; the horror comes to you itself – at a traffic light, at your desk, in a restaurant. A novel about a Christian nurse tells you that a bullet travelled across the city, wounding bus drivers and surprising children on the way. Meanwhile, another writer in a Fedora hat sits under a poster of his novel in a cafe behind Boat Basin, where just months ago a young man was shot in the chest by robbers. And what is there to do about it?
You know that there are bullets zipping across other cities where authors struggle to make sense of it all by filling the space behind a blinking cursor.
You dream, you write.