Book Talk: Booker nominee and former drug addict Jeet Thayil's bleak Bombay portrait


Jeet Thayil, one of the nominees for the 2012 Man Booker Prize for the year's best novel in English, paints a stark portrait of Mumbai, or Bombay as he calls it, in his debut novel Narcopolis.

Thayil is a poet and musician who has been writing poetry since he was 13. His novel takes the reader through the Mumbai drug world's smoky alleys and features the musings of opium addicts in the late 1980s - a situation that Thayil, a former opium addict himself, knows well.

Here Thayil speaks about his deep relationship with Bombay, his addiction and how this book came about.

The Man Booker prize will be announced 16 October.

What is your connection with Bombay?

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 father was working as a journalist. Then I went to school in New York and then came back to Bombay in 1979 and joined Wilson College. In all, I've lived in Bombay for almost 20 years.

Does this make you feel strongly about the city?

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

At the end of Narcopolis, I have tried to draw that picture a little bit - that Bombay will become a very uniform-looking place. The kind of variety you used to be able to find there like dockyards, for example. It will bear a high-rise tenement kind of look uniformly.

How do you look at this change?

No question, for bad. Not saying purely in a nostalgic way, I mean also politically. The political changes that have happened, the kind of changes that have happened in terms of money. The way the rich have become constantly richer while the poor are exactly where they were. So the divide has become even larger than what it was. And the whole right-wing thing that's happening in Bombay. The way outsiders, people of other communities, are made to feel unwelcome. These are the kind of things that one could have never imagined in Bombay. It was welcoming. Anybody with talent, ambition, with beauty, with brains you could make it in Bombay. That is the point of this city. One thing after the other has been chipped away.

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?

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

Was writing Narcopolis difficult?

It took me five years to write it in all ... I was working on a lot of (other things) as well. I didn't realize what the nature of the difficulty would be. And what it turned out to be was the opposite of catharsis. Catharsis gets stuff out of you. But this put bad feelings into me. Thinking about the 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 of you, 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 gives you a sense of being loved. There is no boredom ever, time becomes your slave, or the slave of your agenda. There is never an existential question. It gives you freedom in a way.

How do you look back at the addiction phase?

I look back at it with yearning. It's a bad thing!

There is a very important character named Dimple in the book - a eunuch who makes pipes in the opium den and identifies as a woman. Was she based on a real person?

She was the one who made pipes in an opium den in about 1980-81. I only saw her twice. Then she disappeared. Many people in that world disappear. There was something about the way she used to make the pipe, very elegant.

Why the long sentences?

The opening sentence, the prologue, I wrote that about halfway through the writing of the book, and when I wrote that sentence, I realized this is the way the book should be. And I rewrote the book, changing the language of it with long sentences ... rather than short sentences because I realized the only way to write about opium was to write long, open-ended sentences where the writer who is writing it has no idea where the sentence is going to go. So you follow it and there is a sense of discovery - for the reader as well, I hope. You couldn't write a book about opium, which is a very slow, long process, with short quick Hemingway, journalistic, telegraphic sentences. So once I kind of stumbled on that, it changed everything. Then the book happened very fast.


Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?