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The City and the Writer: In Bombay with Jeet Thayil

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Bombay as you feel/see it?

The cliché about Bombay describes “resilience” in the face of tragedy. Whatever happens—religious riots, killer floods, an unimaginable terror attack, a building collapse, a stampede on an overcrowded footbridge—the plucky city will bounce right back. That notion skirts the truth. Bombay bounces back because it cannot afford to do anything else. People live from hand to mouth, precariously, and they don’t take time off to mourn; as a result, the city is always in need of therapy. Its psychic wounds cannot heal.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When I returned to Bombay in 1979 I was struck by its cosmopolitanism. The currency here was talent, beauty, and ambition. The city welcomed everyone. Religion, gender, caste, and class didn’t matter. Or so I thought. I had not absorbed the undercurrents of fear and hatred that were already at work. In December 1992, the idea of Bombay came to a decisive end. The Hindu-Muslim riots crushed the city, divided it, and changed its name. In my opinion, it has never recovered from those months.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Homelessness here is not like homelessness elsewhere. In Bombay, respectable hardworking people sleep on the streets and pay to house their belongings. They have designated spots and bedding. It is an organized metric enacted on the pavements.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

The poets Dom Moraes, Adil Jussawalla, Eunice de Souza, Namdeo Dhasal, Hoshang Merchant and Imtiaz Dharker; the novelists Cyrus and Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, and Vilas Sarang.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I like walking in Bombay because of the constant presence of the sea. I like it best early in the morning, when traffic is sparse, and also late at night. You hear things better.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

There are bookshops to which I would direct you, but they’re gone now, replaced by chains that sell music, coffee, bobblehead toys, board games, stationery, and the occasional book. The literary cafés are gone too—Wayside Inn at Kala Ghoda, the Sundance Café at Churchgate, the Casbah on Hill Road. These were meaningful sites for the poets of my generation.


Where does passion live here?

In the suburban trains where women chop vegetables for the evening meal as they return from work, in the chawls where extended families live in a single room, on the seafront where married couples hide in the shadows for a moment of privacy. There is passion and there is the appearance of passion. The movie industry, which permeates the city at every level, specializes in the latter, in simulation. I suppose it’s a skill like any other.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Too many to list, so I’ll mention just one: Shuklaji Street, a thoroughfare that connects Bombay Central to the Grant Road edge of the red-light district. A forgotten or carefully overlooked fact about the city is that its fortune was built on opium. Parsi merchants worked with the East India Company to ship opium to China, amassing great wealth as the world’s first drug cartel. Some of that product found its way to smoke houses on Shuklaji Street, which functioned as Bombay’s opium district for more than a hundred years.


What is the title of one of your works about Bombay and what inspired it exactly?

My first novel, Narcopolis, and my most recent novel, Low, are both inspired by the wish to memorialize or mythologize the city’s hidden histories.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bombay does an outside exist?”

Nothing exists outside Bombay. From the moment you get off the plane, you know you have entered a room full of mirrors: everything is self-referential. The city feeds on itself.


Jeet Thayil was born into a Syrian Christian family in Kerala in 1959. He worked as a journalist for twenty-three years in Bombay, Bangalore, Hong Kong, and New York. In 2006 he began to write fiction. His first novel, Narcopolis, was awarded the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His five poetry collections include These Errors Are Correct, which won the Sahitya Akademi Award (India’s National Academy of Letters); and English, winner of a New York Foundation for the Arts award. As a musician, his collaborations include the noise quintet Still Dirty, the experimental trio HMT, and the opera Babur in London. His most recent novel is The Book of Chocolate Saints.

Published Jun 5, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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