The Singapore Writers Festival is one of Asia’s premier literary events. This year was intellectually stimulating and creatively designed. SWF explored the origins of storytelling and creative inspiration with world-renowned authors and Asia’s rising stars, including Pulitzer Prize-winner, Michael Cunningham, Man Booker shortlisted Jeet Thayil, Sir Stamford Raffles biographer Victoria Glendinning, popular illustrator Jimmy Liao and top travel writer Pico Iyer. It remains one of the few literary festivals in the world that is multi-lingual, celebrating works in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
We interviewed three up and coming writers at the festival. Jeet Thayil came to the world’s attention with Narcopolis, his much touted, surprise inclusion on the Man Booker shortlist. A lyrical, sprawling novel that captures Bombay of the 1970s in all its compelling squalor.
Both Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Zafar Anjum, despite today’s challenging landscape for publishers, had their first books snapped up by top publishing houses. Business journalist Zafar tells the inspirational story of Indian corporate giant, Satyam’s collapse in 2009 and subsequent extraordinary resurgence. Cheryl’s story although smaller, is also one of human resilience and inventiveness. She left the Wall Street Journal in New York and headed to Singapore to re-connect with her Asian roots and dish up a literary treat with ‘Tiger in the Kitchen’.
Q & A with Jeet Thayil, Author of Narcopolis
Q. Jeet, you were writing poetry before becoming a novelist, how difficult was that transition?
Writing a novel is arduous, it’s manual labour really, and you have to be at it every day, prepared to live in your own mind for long angst-ridden periods.
Poetry has a far quicker return. You could say it’s the loneliness of the long distance runner versus the ecstasy of the sprinter.
Certain themes crop up a lot in your writing, how does Narcopolis explore some of these?
I agree that a lot of the themes that I deal with in my poetry also occur in Narcopolis. Addiction, damnation, salvation. But death, sex, madness and transformation are also fairly constant motifs.
Narcopolis is about Bombay’s underbelly, and I notice you insist on using Bombay rather than Mumbai, why is that?
There was a time when Bombay was a place of freedom, not fear, it wasn’t always about the Hindu-Muslim issue. There were other stories. It was a joyful place. Sadly that city is no more, the current rightwing powers in Bombay have tried to rub out history. But one of the powers of fiction is that we can reinstate the erased.
Q. I’m guessing there must have been mixed reaction to your book depicting Bombay as a city of intoxication and addicts.
I never wanted to paint India in soft focus, as a place of addled nostalgia, monsoons and mangoes. This has no connection to the country I know. I’ve tried to be honest even if brutally so sometimes.
I know you moved from Bombay to Delhi shortly after finishing the book. Was this to avoid any reprisals?
It was a happy coincidence, but I’m glad I’m not living there now. Delhi isn’t as lawless as Bombay. You can’t beat someone up because you don’t like his book, you have to rely on other forms of literary criticism.
Q. You write about the drug subculture of Bombay which is closely related to the underworld. Did you conduct any sort of research?
I was an addict myself for many years so I had first-hand experience. The interesting thing about the crime bosses of Bombay is that they left their business outside the opium dens, although their personalities were always in evidence. They said little but when they did everybody paid attention. They were aware of their mortality, which made every conversation special. Opium has that effect, it bonds the people who use it, it makes them feel as if they are part of a brotherhood.
Q. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the subject matter, the book has a lot of humour and you are adept at switching from tragedy to comedy on the same page. Is that important to you?
There is always room for more than one kind of voice, and it doesn’t have to seem contrived. I like the freedom of using what I have to carry the reader along, including jokes, poems, digressions.
Q. How autobiographical is the book?
There’s usually an autobiographical element to any book – we write about what we know. But no amount of research can uncover some kinds of information, you have to have been there, doing it. I wanted to draw a picture of Bombay as it was, when it was still Bombay. You could say its an autobiography of Bombay 30 years ago.
Q. And finally, Michael Cunningham said during this Festival that being a writer is about perspiration more than inspiration. Do you agree?
Yes. Inspiration is overrated. It’s about putting the work in. You have to be at it every day, you have to go to bed at a reasonable hour, you have to be physically fit. If you waited for inspiration you wouldn’t get much done. Someone said you have to stand on the mountaintop every day to be hit by lightning once. A more reliable source of inspiration, in my opinion, is caffeine.