Through the wild years of growing up, Jeet Thayil has managed to remain true to himself, says Vijay Nambisan, reflecting on his long friendship with the author of Narcopolis, which is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize for fiction.
It is said that winning the Nobel spells finis to a writer’s career. Getting on to the Booker long list is some way short of that. Not very much short, according to our media who have just celebrated a clutch of silvers and bronzes at the Olympics. However, Jeet Thayil will forgive me this essay, as we have each forgiven the other for many things in the past.
I have not read Narcopolis yet, but I know Jeet is unfazed by the reviews he’s had in India. I also know he’d have written it exactly the way he wanted to, for, he learned in a school which trained us to put our visions on paper trustingly and accurately.
Jeet and I came together through poetry, as young friends — I don’t like the word protégés, though it’s probably true — of Dom Moraes. This was in about January 1990, and you must remember that journalism was just beginning to be a respectable profession. There came to be money in it, more money than I like to think of, but this was before the name of Harshad Mehta was not taken in vain. Many of us young fellows lived a life of self-destruction, with its attendant inordinate highs and horrendous lows. Even Cyrus Mistry, now so self-contained, said in these pages last month, “I used to be a wild kind of guy.” I was a colleague of Cyrus’s after his wild phase, and he is one of the sweetest chaps I’ve known. Most of us have settled down, but the wildness is within us, and I believe Jeet has expressed it in Narcopolis as he did in his early poems.
Dom got us published, by David Davidar who was then looking to get a list together for Penguin, in a twin volume titled Gemini (1992). Dom told us, “Neither of you has enough poems to fill a volume.” He also said, wryly, “I didn’t suggest ‘Gemini’ because either of you is heavenly.”
Indeed we weren’t. Our lives then, I think, were one ceaseless round of not doing what we should have done. We tried to live in interesting times. Jeet and I got on together — at least, when we fell out, we always came back together. His poetry, and his attitude to poetry, were and are very different from mine. He was brought up on Baudelaire, I on Wordsworth.
That is, of course, a simplification. No one who has studied English in Bombay and New York can be ignorant of Wordsworth. I am envious of Jeet both for his literary-critical background and — sigh — because he can enjoy Baudelaire in the original.
Jeet and I are both Malayalis, but he is a stranger to Kerala and its culture. His parents, though, are Kerala-born; his father, T.J.S. George, is a veteran journalist, a scholar and a bon vivant. Jeet grew up in Hong Kong, where he knew Dom, so he had a hell of an advantage over me. He also had a passion for music, but his guitar-playing days were over when I met him, though he continued to review music for some years.
His poetry is something I could only admire from a distance. He was attracted by the exotic; I by the ordinary. He fulfils, though, one criterion of the poet: to write a bad poem seldom, and to publish it never. Even his unsound poems are beautiful, because he has an ear for the music of words. Dom wrote in his much-maligned Introduction to Gemini, “Jeet’s poems are sometimes flawed by his image of himself.” I thought so, too, then; but you can say that of any young writer.
We have had many quarrels, at long distance and short in Bombay. Many are the nights I’ve spent in his flat on Perry Cross Road in Bandra, arguing with him and others. In 1992, I first read there John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which by a happy chance I’m re-reading now after 20 years. Jeet had, and retains, a sympathy for the craziness of things which I respect and share.
Our paths then diverged; I left Bombay for good. Jeet continued to work on journals. He was for a time Literary Editor of Gentleman. I seem to remember his review of the decade’s bestseller consisted of “The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy,” repeated across a page and a half. That is not my kind of review, but he made his point.
He then went abroad, met and married Shakti — whose early loss was a shock to all their friends, and in whose memory he has founded a prize. Shakti helped him find the courage to defeat his personal demons which I so admire. Jeet’s poetry now is, I think, more reflective, less visceral than his early work. It is still Christian, though you couldn’t call Jeet a practising Christian. I mean it has that sense of sin and salvation which I also see in his character. His poems are true to himself, and that’s a great virtue.
I’m so happy to find so many of my Bombay contemporaries staying true to themselves and their craft, staying on in India, even when they branch into other genres: Cyrus Mistry, Raj Rao, Jerry Pinto, Ranjit Hoskote to name but four. Maybe I shall yet live to see the Indian media confident of their own cultural moorings.
Like all the Bombay school writers — there is no such school, but I mean those writers still writing who had the privilege of knowing Nissim Ezekiel, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolhatkar and Adil Jussawalla c. 1990 — Jeet has a sense of the commonwealth of writers, which is perhaps one feature which may distinguish the artist from the hack. They did not teach us to write, but their very presence taught us to take writing seriously. That lack of pretence, and that fellow-feeling, thoroughly inform Jeet’s surely definitive anthology, 60 Indian Poets.
Jeet and I will never see completely eye-to-eye about writing. It does not matter. Neither of us wishes any more to Remould the World Nearer to the Heart’s Desire. But whenever we write, I think, the memory of the dead poets, and those not dead, is with us, in poetry or prose, and does not wish to be exorcised. I mean the title of this piece, corny as it is.
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