I meet Jeet one October afternoon at Latitude Café in Delhi’s trendy Khan Market, where we have espressos with my parents and then, when they leave, four goldfish bowl-shaped glasses of wine and a platter of salami, prosciutto and parmesan. It’s 8pm before we even head to his Defence Colony home to start the interview.
Monisha Rajesh: Narcopolis is basically non-fiction isn’t it?
Jeet Thayil: I didn’t even bother changing some of the names, as they’re all dead now.
Death being a key theme of the book…
A lot of people misspelt the title of the book and called it Necropolis, but I’m fine with that, because the title is a play on that and it is a city of the dead. Narcopolis is a necropolis. Bombay disappears and a lot of the characters die with it. Throughout the book, opium disappears and heroin arrives and the last few chapters point at the future, to what Bombay will be. You can make an accurate educated guess as to what it will be in the future.
A uniformed, soulless place without neighbourhoods.
I notice that you refuse to call Bombay “Mumbai”. Why?
Because I don’t want to buy into the current management and branding of the city. It’s a right-wing construct. There is a time I remember in the 1990s, when if you addressed a letter to “Bandra, Bombay”, there was a high probability that it wouldn’t get there. It’s part of that whole Maharashtran, Hindu thing. The Shiv Sena [the extreme right-wing political party which controls Mumbai and was behind the change of name], is against any kind of foreigner – and by that they mean a North Indian, or a South Indian, or a Bihari. The whole point of Bombay was that it was a place that welcomed everybody. That had a lot of do with why I left.
Why do you think the Indian reaction to your book was so bad?
Indian reviewers don’t read books. They have two days to produce 800 words. They read the prologue and then skim a few pages, then they read all the other reviews. If the first two are negative, you can be sure they will all be negative. If the first two are good, the rest will be good. It’s that low-level, that pathetic. It takes a kind of confidence for a reviewer to have their own opinion about a book. And a lot of people here just don’t care about literary novels.
“I was a journalist and a junkie for 20 years and unlike the junkie cliché, I had good jobs all over the world.”
What do you mean by “literary”?
I mean the kind of novel that you have to bring something to: a novel that you have to put a little work into reading; a novel that doesn’t give up its secrets and its meanings straight away; a novel that maybe needs two readings. All readers are not equal. A lot of people are not moved, and those readers shouldn’t read certain books, which may sound like an arrogant thing to say, but I mean, f––– off, don’t read my book! Don’t quote that.
Actually, who cares? Say it.
But your reception at home in the UK was very warm.
I got the feeling that western critics had actually read the book, which at that point was a hugely emotional thing for me.
And how did you feel when you were longlisted for the Booker? Did that feel like two fingers up to the people who had turned it down?
Absolutely. I was astonished. I felt it was a good book but I also knew it was full of brutality and grime and ugliness as well as beauty. I thought that because of that there would be certain genteel prizes that I would be disqualified from. I never even fantasised about the Booker.
Where were you when you found out?
I was sitting in this room. Nobody called me about it, I saw it on Twitter. Where else?
Why did you wait until your fifties to write this book?
I should have done my novel before this, but I was a journalist and a junkie for 20 years and unlike the junkie cliché, I had good jobs all over the world. I was a books editor, I did financial journalism for Asia Week for five years, I was Bombay correspondent for the South China Morning Post for 18 months, I worked for every newspaper in India doing arts journalism. I was a hardworking junkie.
“It takes devotion to become an addict to opium and heroin. You have to keep doing it to get through it. I lost a lot of weight. But the payback is huge. It is pure pleasure.”
You described your time as an addict as “embedded research”. When and how did you first take opium?
I was 18 years old and studying at Wilson College, a 25-minute walk over the bridge to Shuklaji Street which was the heart of the opium trade. A friend from Hong Kong had turned up in Bombay and took me to an opium den in Crawford Market. I walked in and saw this room with three pipes. Everything happened at floor level. It was like a bubble: Bombay noise and heat out there, 19th-century people lying and smoking in here, absolutely self-contained. I couldn’t look at that and not think of it as a piece of literary installation art. I walked in the door and I was hooked. I smoked that day, and loved it and went back. A month or so later I got an aerogramme from my friend saying, “Jeet, get your ass out of that den.”
Is it possible to even describe the feeling of taking opium?
The thing about opium is that it makes you vomit. You cook the original raw sticky pellet against the bowl of the pipe. And for the first three or four months, you puke. But it’s a clean very easy puke, not like alcohol. You could be walking down the street talking to a friend, turn, puke and keep going. But you do that a lot for the first few months. It takes devotion to become an addict to opium and heroin. You have to keep doing it to get through it. I lost a lot of weight. But the payback is huge. It is pure pleasure. There is a reason why opiates are used as a painkiller: they make you feel better. They’re designed to make you feel better.
So when Renton says in Trainspotting: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it,” he’s right?
“Opium use is a quick way of showing a person’s character. Within months some people would be stealing from family and friends, but there were people who never did that kind of thing. I used my salary to finance my habit.”
That may be a bit of an exaggeration but you can see where that comes from. I kept a diary in the early days, back in 1979, because it takes complete will and knowledge and planning to become an addict. I was so aware, I started to mark the days where I smoked, to keep track and not get addicted, and before I knew it I was marking the days when I didn’t do it.
How expensive was the habit?
At the start, ten rupees a pipe [the equivalent of around £2–£3 in today’s money]. Eventually it became very expensive and I never had enough money to cover it. It was interesting – opium use is a quick way of showing a person’s character. Within months some people would be stealing from family and friends, but there were people who never did that kind of thing. I used my salary to finance my habit.
Did you ever try to stop?
Sure. I could never quite make ends meet, it was miserable. Every time it got too much, I would check into a clinic, or do a cold turkey thing, save some money. Then I would go back and re-addict. But it was like managing savings, never for my health.
You must have looked horrendous, surely!
It was horrifying. I do look at pictures now and there was just bone, no flesh, very skeletal. I looked sick. Opiates take the life out of your eyes and take away the things that make you human. Eating becomes a chore. You have to get high to sleep. The first time I quit I didn’t sleep for one month. Not an hour. I was awake for thirty days. It was horrible being awake all night while everyone was sleeping. You have to lie there with your eyes open. You can take sleeping pills but often that doesn’t work.
What else does it do?
You don’t eat, sleep, or come. You can try for hours but you can’t come. You can’t shit! You can’t piss either. You try and you can’t. Lots of junkies don’t shit for weeks and all kinds of very weird medical things happen. You’re just not human. And emotionally, you become so self-contained that you don’t feel empathy for other people. You’re just a machine.
“Everybody is dying, by the way. The difference is that I know it, and you don’t. We live in that kind of world.”
Did nobody step in to help you?
Of course. Family and friends got involved, but I was a unique case. My life hadn’t fallen apart. I kept my jobs going, I had girlfriends, I had money, I had a house, I had a car, I had all those things. But I got Hepatitis C from injecting government morphine. I started injecting in 1982, but it took 25 years for the symptoms to show. That was a complete wake-up call. As soon as I found out, I quit everything, including my job in New York, and came to India to be a writer. I started working on the book, and lived very cleanly. I even quit drinking for nine years. It wasn’t easy to do. But just knowing that my time was limited was enough. Hepatitis C will eventually turn into liver cancer. Everybody is dying, by the way. The difference is that I know it, and you don’t. We live in that kind of world. And knowing it has focused me and made me do things that I would probably have put off for another ten years.
Which includes writing the libretto for an opera, Babur in London, which explores the concept of multifaith in Britain. Why did that topic appeal to you?
I’ve spent a lot of time in London over the last few years and I liked the idea of the Mughal emperor Babur meeting with modern-day disaffected youth and talking to them about their actions. He was a sharp literary critic who could be very sweeping and cruel about poetry if he thought it was bad poetry, and he said some fantastic things that I quoted word for word in the opera. I read the Baburnama – the memoirs of Babur – and quoted lines from it. “Writing badly will make you ill.” What a beautiful thing to say. I read that book and I thought, how dramatic! If he had been a figure in western history it would have been an opera. War, murder, love, tragedy, poetry. It always jumped out at me as something worth doing.
And then it was cancelled in India.
How dispiriting it was after two years of labour, to have the whole thing cancelled. We had just finished touring in the UK and Switzerland. We had a six-city tour lined up: the halls were booked; the tickets sold; and the sponsors decided to cancel it. When you hear the name “Babur”, both sides – Hindus and Muslims – get excited. In Bombay you will get a Hindu backlash, in Hyderabad a Muslim backlash. We live in an insane country. We wouldn’t have to worry about the Christians or the Parsis and probably not the Buddhists. Very, very depressing.
“I could have never imagined what followed. We didn’t know that right before us Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar had just read from The Satanic Verses in a separate session.”
You’re no stranger to the fight against censorship. I was sitting in the session at the Jaipur Literary Festival this year when you and Ruchir Joshi got into trouble for reading out chunks from The Satanic Verses.
I should have thought about it more. The day before our session it was decided that Salman Rushdie would not be coming, and at that point it seemed like the worthwhile thing to do. I knew that there was no law against reading the book in India – the law was against importing it. But you can download it. They came up with that law long before the internet.
I loved what you did, but there was one hell of a backlash that night.
I could have never imagined what followed. We didn’t know that right before us Hari Kunzru and Amitava Kumar had just read from The Satanic Verses in a separate session. The minute I finished, people were queuing for me to sign copies of Narcopolis. But we were taken to this room where Hari and Amitava were sitting and we weren’t allowed to leave. There was a lawyer, there were police on site and they threatened to close down the festival which made all of us feel like shit. I was full of remorse, because the directors are our friends and we knew how much work they had put into it, but I don’t think we were really in trouble. Even though we were told to make ourselves scarce I actually stayed around as there was a party I wanted to go to the next night.
And so what’s next for you?
My second novel. So far the working title is The Book of Chocolate Saints, which should be done in a couple of months. It’s based on Newton Xavier, the painter character who disappears from Narcopolis – disappears into this new book, in fact. The only way to get past the first book is to be working on something else. It can really play with your head.