Tharun James Jimani says he chose to celebrate the Nineties in his debut novel because it was an important decade for India
Tharun James Jimani’s Cough Syrup Surrealism (Fingerprint, Rs. 250) is a wild ride through sex, drugs, rock n roll in Chennai. The 29-year-old “recovering Malayali” has peopled his dark bildungsroman with eminently-believable characters and in his description of cities—Trivandrum and Chennai, he has gone beyond the picture postcard into the soul.
“Trivandrum is where I was born and brought up and it will always be home,” says Tharun. “It’s not like Cochin or Kottayam or any other place in Kerala; it’s the political capital, it’s both a very cultural city and a cultural melting pot. As a child, I’d spend my holidays with my grandparents in Vaikom and Kaipuzha so there was always this sense of not really being from one particular place anyway.
“As for Chennai, I’d lived there for three years while studying in college. It’s again a very diversely cultured population — especially among college students — and they tend to sort of congregate into little niches of their own depending on interests. Charlie, the protagonist, offers the ‘Peter’ perspective: non-Tamil-speaker, more observer than participant in the real Chennai, but part of a subset with a life and culture of its own.”
On why he set the book in Chennai, the Mumbai-based writer says: “Because it was the only other place I had ever lived in at the time I was writing it. It could have been any Indian tier 1 city with students from diverse middle-class backgrounds, because the gang in the novel have only one common bond: ‘Western’ pop culture, brought to their childhood homes by cable TV and the internet.”
Through the book, we get to see another side of Chennai — a sub culture that never seems to spoken about, Tharun disagrees. “Chennai could have been any city. Because the sub-culture, is really mainstream. It’s everywhere, in every city. It’s just a group of kids, living in a new city, on their own for the first time, finally getting an opportunity to live like their internet heroes.”
Insisting that “The similarities end with the protagonists being Malayalis,” Tharun says, “I’ve drawn on real life experiences of course, both mine and others’, but it’s not an autobiographical book. It’s pure pop culture homage than anything else.”
And homage brings us to the references to the pop culture of the Nineties. Why the Nineties? “Because the 90s were awesome. Because I grew up in the 90s, and leaving aside all the great music and movies that were coming at us from every corner of the world, it was a defining decade for India. Mine was the first Indian generation to be reared on and groomed by cable TV, by international programming, and we hit puberty and what do we get? The internet! I couldn’t have come up with a better backstory than that — what easier rationale for collective identity crisis? That’s not a criticism though— we set the tone for a change that was long overdue and I love that I grew up where I did when I did.”
Along with the pop cultural references, substance abuse is a constant through the book. So does the book condone substance abuse? “How do we distinguish between substance use and abuse? The book doesn’t condone abuse of any kind; as for the latter, I’d like to think it gives the reader enough material to make an intelligent decision.”
Denying the book is a morality tale, Tharun says, “The intention was to give all the characters some kind of salvation, albeit in their own different ways. There’s a strong romantic element of course, but I think it’s really more about 21st century relationships in general — of a particular age group — and how hard it is to find people you can relate to, what with all our different affiliations. It’s hard to find somebody who loves your favourite movies, and hates Greenday as much as you do.”
Nitin Malik from Parikrama describes the book as an “An incredible read.” Tharun says “I really wanted to know what Nitin made of the book because he’s part of one of India’s oldest and biggest rock bands and the novel is a lot about Charlie’s love of 90s music.”
Describing himself as “a big fan of Hanif Kureishi, Jeffrey Eugenides and Upamanyu Chatterjee” (What Chatterjee’s English August was to the Nineties, Cough Syrup Surrealism has the potential to be for the present generation) Tharun says he has “tried to keep the language a little like a blog — a little self-indulgent, a place to rant, digressions, meta humour, because I thought it fit the narrator’s age group, both in terms how personal they can be on public forums and how small all our attention spans have become thanks to the wonderful invention that is broadband.”