Tales of the forgotten

Tales of the forgotten

My aim while writing fiction has always been to turn the spotlight on marginalised figures, says author Jeet Thayil.

Jeet Thayil.(Pic courtesy: Basso Cannarsa)

From Hong Kong to Mumbai and New York to New Delhi, Jeet Thayil has experienced the highs and lows of life, which have inspired his writing.

At 61, the Bengaluru-based author, poet and musician has written four novels with the fifth underway. He quit journalism at 45 and published his first book Narcopolis when he was 50. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and winner of the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, it is a compelling tale of Mumbai’s world of drugs and opium addiction of the 70s and 80s with a cast of varied characters. His second, The Book of Chocolate Saints (2017), is as much about Indian poets and cultural history as about death, remorse and revenge.

Low (2020), written in eight months, is about the loss of a wife, the profound grief and guilt that takes the protagonist through the grimy underbelly of Mumbai.

His latest, Names of the Women (2021), gives voice to 15 women in the life of Jesus Christ whose roles were marginalised or erased from the scriptures. Thayil has published five books of poems with one winning the Sahitya Akademi Award. A prodigious reader and prolific writer, he feels “unsettled” if he doesn’t read and write daily. Excerpts from an interview:

Your latest book places women at the heart of the gospels. Why were they excluded?

Because the men of those times didn’t want to share the power of the church. Otherwise, there is no reason why someone like Mary of Magdala, for instance, would not be among the early leaders of the church. She was more important than Peter in many ways. She stayed with Christ during his crucifixion, and was the first to witness his return, yet she is excluded from the power structure of the church by one simple expedience: they labelled her a prostitute. There is not a shred of evidence — and I have looked very carefully — anywhere in the New Testament to substantiate this allegation.

When you set a story so far back in Christ’s time, how do you ensure authenticity and accuracy?

That is where the novelist’s craft comes in, as an act of empathy and imagination. Human nature, in all its horror and beauty, has not changed in 2,000 years, and will not change in the future. If you read the stories of the New Testament today, they make absolute sense because the characters were motivated by the same things that we are motivated by today — greed, lust, jealousy, anger, hate, compassion, and love. That hasn’t changed. It really is a question of empathy, and without empathy, you probably should not write a novel.

Do you think the book could become controversial?

Apparently, it has already caused some controversy, which I was not expecting. They say that I have not given enough due to the characters’ Jewishness. It is possible the book may be controversial within the Catholic church as well.

Are your books autobiographical to some extent? 

My life has very little to do with the first three novels, the Bombay Trilogy. The only way my life figures in those books is in terms of the journalist’s eye, meaning, the use of historical detail.

The actual fibre of all three books is imagination and that is why they are truly works of fiction. The endeavour is to use the autobiographical element as a stepping stone from which you build. When people say the three novels are purely autobiographical, they miss the point. I hope those people, when they read Names of the Women, will understand what my fictional project has been all along: to bring marginal figures to the centre.

Going forward, novels or poems?

I have no idea, because I don’t see a huge difference between genres. For me, it is a question of being a writer. You write every day in some form or the other, but basically, you bring the same set of skills, obsessions and ideology to whatever it might be. I haven’t written poems in a long time, but who knows, it might happen.

Another novel soon?

I’m working on a story in which I present a lot of factual material, including notes, notebook covers, photographs and other material that my father used when he was a journalist.

He was among the first Indian journalists to visit North Vietnam in 1973 after the US pullout. I visited Vietnam too, so I am interweaving a lot of this material. It is a book about migrants, about being foreign, about living in various parts of the world, without a sense of belonging. It also plays with the idea of what is fiction and what is non-fiction and what is autobiographical. It should be out next year.

Your experience with publishers?

I was very lucky with my first book, because although it was rejected by Indian publishers, it was grabbed within weeks by Lee Brackstone, who was the editor with a major international publishing company. It was translated into many languages, giving me enough money to spend the next six years working on my second novel. I think it is a very good idea to keep in mind what publishers keep in mind, and that is, finding a readership.

Your writing process?

It usually begins with an idea, but there have been times when I’ve written a story without knowing what it was until a year into the process. My first book took five years to write, the second took six years. Now I’ve become more efficient.  By the time I begin, I already know what the world of the novel will be. I am a full-time writer; I write every day.

Favourite authors?

It changes all the time, but currently I am very much taken with the new group of women novelists who I think are changing the way we look at literature: Rachel Cusk, Valeria Luiselli, Rachel Kushner, Sally Rooney, so many writers doing something unprecedented with how you approach a novel, how experimental you can be. 

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