‘Poetry Is Prayer For Godless People’: The Inimitable, Jeet Thayil

Posted on February 3, 2015 in Books, Interviews, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Abhishek Jha:

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The tortured genius is a fascinating character. Keats, Rimbaud, Ginsberg: all of them have wrecked us by their boldness, their tragedy, and their genius. Their fragility makes them endearing. Jeet Thayil would perhaps say that the imposition of the limitation of death sets the poet free. On the penultimate evening of the recently concluded ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, he says, “Poetry is prayer for godless people“.

Whether he earns that epithet, is best left to you, the reader. But the poet, musician, librettist, and novelist is definitely a rockstar of an artist. His collection of poems, These Errors are Correct was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in English in 2012 when his novel, Narcopolis, was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which then went on to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in the following year. His musical collaboration Sridhar/Thayil cuts through genres to create a potpourri of jazz and Indian classical music, spirituality and desire, words and sounds. He is also a member of the band Still Dirty.

When team YKA meets him for this interview- on the sidelines of the festival- he arrives languorously, a half-empty glass of red wine in hand. While finding a sunlit place to settle, shuffling between chairs, just as we find the perfect place, we are interrupted by a journalist asking for a video byte, and he says, “Just don’t focus on my torn trousers“. As he covers the torn patch, we know we are in for surprises.

Q: You had been dwelling in and dwelling on poetry for two decades, writing, editing, and compiling anthologies. How did you then come to write prose? Why did you not attempt writing a novel earlier?

A: I had always wanted to write long-form prose, a novel. But I’d never been able to do it because my life was too chaotic. To write a novel, you need space, you need time, you need a  certain kind of a life, I won’t say a settled life but a life that is not informed by chaos and chance and disaster. For many years that was my life: shaped by disaster. So when I was finally able to clean myself up and straighten myself out, I was able to write fiction and a novel. It’s as simple as that.

Q: Was it (the disaster) just the drugs or your jobs and other things as well?

A: It was the terrible drugs and the terrible jobs. I didn’t know which was worse. Now when I look back on it, I think maybe the jobs might have been worse than the drugs. In fact the heroin might have been an improvement on some of the jobs I’ve had and some of the insane bosses I have worked for.

Q: And where were you working then?

A: I worked for pretty much every newspaper in India, also monthly magazines and weeklies. For some strange reason I was never fired. Some jobs I held for about six months and quit. My last job was very possibly the worst of the lot. That was an Indian newspaper in New York. I should probably not mention the newspaper’s name. I should probably not tell you that it was India Abroad, now owned by Rediff. Without question, the worst job ever. In a way I think it was a good thing. I worked there for four and a half years and it was so miserable and so degrading— degrading is the correct word because, you know, what they really pay you for is your time, and they want to take that time from you and make sure that you can do nothing good or useful with it, and they want to take your time and mangle it and crush it, that’s what they give you the money for, and India Abroad was very good at it—anyway, I did it for four and a half years and it was so degrading that I reached a point where I could never again work for a boss. So in a way it was a positive thing. At this point I don’t mind being broke. I don’t mind, really, living on a very small amount of money but I am not going to work for a newspaper again.

[We bite our lips]

No offence against newspapers!

[We laugh and explain how Youth Ki Awaaz works.]

See, that’s a whole different thing. If I had an option like that in my youth, things would have been different.

Q: But a young poet does need money for sustenance. How can a young Indian poet, especially today, put up a stoic front and be patient for that long?

A: It’s really a source of mystery and wonder and emotion for me when I think about young poets and the fact that they continue to write poetry in a world that conspires to squeeze until they give up hope. Because there’s no money, no reward, no return for years. For decades you’re writing and working and scribbling in the dark and if you are lucky and you keep writing-and the thing is most young poets give up. They don’t continue. It’s a tragedy and it happens all the time.

Q: Tell us about your work with Fulcrum. You edited it?

A: No, I didn’t edit it. It’s edited by the amazing Russian-American poet Philip Nikolayev. I am on the editorial board. I did some writing for them and edited an anthology of Indian poets. And it ended up being 300 pages long and it swallowed that issue of Fulcrum. Fulcrum is an annual, the best poetry magazine in the US, I think. Philip put Dom Moraes on the cover and made it a special issue. After that, Penguin published it in India as 60 Indian Poets. And then a British edition came out called The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, which had 72 poets.

Q: Narcopolis has a form, at least portions of it (the prologue, for instance) have a form that blurs the line between prose and poetry. Did the characters necessitate that language or were you deliberately putting yourself into a position to convey meaning through form?

A: It was a story really about narcotics and a special corner of a corner of the narcotic world which was the opiate world. It was a book about opium and heroin and how the drug culture of Bombay changed from opium to heroin. It’s an opiated story and I thought if I couldn’t use poems, prose poems, snatches of songs, drawings, hallucinations, prayers, sea shanties, Chinese revolutionary anthems here, well, where? With Narcopolis, the subject allowed me to write in a way that I really don’t think I’ll be able to do again in a piece of prose.

Q: How important is form to you? Burroughs, to which your writing has been at times likened, would want an uninhibited flow from the mind, without any craftiness. Do you use form to create meaning outside of the content?

A: I think the main problem poets have when they write novels, and poets always have problem when they write novels, is because they become overcome by the craft of it. They forget about keeping the story going, that it’s really about the story rather than the language and the structure and all those high-falutin things. And all my poet friends who write novels, they write tortuously. They take way longer to write a novel than other people. I really envy writers who can bang it out in a year or two.

Q: You are a musician too. What’s your work in Sridhar/Thayil and Still Dirty like?

A: S/T is still working together. We’ll be doing another album. We continue to perform. But when I think about what I did with S/T compared to what I do with Still Dirty, which is fun and easy and dirty, it’s so different. Sridhar/Thayil is immaculate. It’s like every note is carved in stone, you can’t change it. There are moments of improvisation but even those are precise [slices the air with the blade of his hand]. STD was my first album at a very late age and it was Suman’s first album. And we were both obsessive about it, kind of crazy. We got all neurotic about it. It’s a very unique kind of music, the music that Sridhar/Thayil did, still so far ahead of its time. I don’t think I could ever replicate it. It’s really all to do with Suman and me. It’s what happens when you put the two of us in a room together. Insane shit happens. Insane and obsessive and neurotic and absolutely unexpected magical things happen, which I never expect to happen with any other band.

Still Dirty for me is a holiday. It’s five guys who love to hang out, bad boys who like to party. We never do a song the same way twice. Depending on what’s happening and who’s drunk how much and what kind of other shit’s been going on, it’s a different song each time. And that’s the beauty of it. You’ve got to love it.

Q: There always has been more focus on the poverty and strife or the oriental charm in the writing from the subcontinent, if not the immigrant status of the writer. Do you think that takes attention away from the art or is it wherein our art lies¬- the authentic portrayal of a languishing India?

A:I know people who do it focusing only on incredible India, India rising, India the superpower and to do that you have to be blind to 80% of the country. India is not incredible. It is incredible but not in the way they want us to believe. That’s a lie. Go out and see the villages and the level of poverty and malnutrition. We have the highest percentage of hungry children. It’s a lie and it’s offensive. If you are writing a real novel about India at this moment, how can all of that not come? How can the horror not come in?

Q: Whether it be Narcopolis or the Heroin Sestina, there are always vernacular references. How do you overcome, as someone who writes in English, the difficulty of narrating or depicting the lives of people for whom English is only a second language or who maybe do not speak English at all?

A: I think I approached that problem in Narcopolis by using a lot of different languages.

There are Chinese words, there are Urdu words, there’s a lot of Bombayya street lingo which the people spoke. I don’t know if they speak it in the same manner today because it changes all the time. I used the kind of language that was used in those days. I used those words without attribution or explanation. I mean that’s the way to do it if you want to get all of it in. Don’t write for an English speaker. Write for India. We speak so many languages.

Q: You’ve said that ‘poetry is prayer for godless people’. When did that strain of atheism come in your life?

A: I don’t have a strain of atheism. I believe in God. I am a believer, especially when I am in trouble, especially when I am in crisis, and especially when I am on airplanes.

Q: Literary movements in English still continue to be dictated by the west. Is it the difficulty with using a foreign language? What could be an Indian revolution?

A: I think we have already begun to see what that might be. It’s going to be a very unique thing. It will be a kind of writing that will talk about us and our lives and not care about any other part of the world. And I know that’s going to happen. Some young writer will do it. It will be a revolution and you can already see the seeds of that revolution.

And so this comes to an end.When we ask for a photograph with him, he suggests that we stick our bald heads into the camera. I am convinced that this is just one of the jokes that bald people crack. But he is already bending. So I hastily follow. I keep trying to look into the camera, anyway, before I observe that he has his head bowed completely, as if in prayer. I offer mine too as I submit completely to the will of this mysteriously absent God.

For so said our man Yeats, “Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed”.


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What does your workspace look like?

You know what they say: A cluttered workspace is a neat mind and a neat workspace is a chaotic mind. My workspace is absolutely neat.

The view from your window?

Green trees.

What keeps you from writing?

Red wine, music, psychedelia.

Tea of coffee? Early bird or creature of the night?Road trip or flying?

Coffee. Any time of the day. Red wine. Anything but flying.

What do you do when you hit the writer’s block?

I make it worse.

Where is your mythical muse?

[Lifts his glass] Wine.

What would you be if not a writer?

In jail or dead.

Any character in your novel that you have fallen for?


Would you like to change the ending of your novel?

Yes, I would like to make it a happy ending. But that wouldn’t be honest.Everyone dies. That’s what we do.

Critical fans or screaming fans?

Why not both?

Any author you would want to swap your life with?

W.S. Merwin. Because he lives in Hawaii. [/alert]

Jeet Thayil