It’s been almost a month since I returned from India and tried to wriggle back into my life here. I no longer feel the irresistible urge to blog every two weeks or so, and have been reading instead. One thing I did do on this trip was indulge my reading eye with fiction, something i haven’t had much time for in recent years. But this time i found myself at Blossoms in Bangalore two days after i arrived, buying a clutch of books, the most memorable of which was Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands by S. Hussain Zaidi. An easy read the book detailed the lives of several tough women, many of whom were forced by circumstance to wander from the straight and narrow into lives of illicit pleasure and pain.
In Delhi I found myself at the launch of David Davidar’s Ithaca, a novel set in the ecosystem of mainstream literary publishing. Staying at the India International Centre I had discovered that none other than the well-known agent David Godwin was in residence there too, having come to Delhi to hold a public ‘conversation’ with Damodar at the British Council where Ithaca was to be launched. Curiousity made me attend the function, after all publishing is very much part of my world and i had followed Davidar’s ignominious return to India after losing his job as CEO of Penguin Canada on charges of sexual harrassment in 2010. I also wanted to see/hear Godwin in action. Besides the British Council building is a lovely spot (why don’t we have the benefit of a British Council in Jamaica/the Caribbean i wonder?), i had fond memories of my first visit there a few years ago for the launch of Ruchir Joshi’s Last Jet Engine Laugh. Now there‘s a novel one could rave about.
After some hard negotiations with my cab driver to allow me an hour and a half instead of the hour he was prepared to wait I went into the venue to find that the auditorium was full and overflow guests like myself were being directed to the courtyard where a screen had been set up and the conversation between Godwin and Davidar was just starting. It was actually very pleasant to be following the convo in the open air and you certainly had a better view of the stage and the participants. Can’t remember much of what was said, certainly not well enough to reproduce it here. Davidar did say that the novel only featured his recent tribulations tangentially.
I bought a copy of Ithaca and left, looking forward to the experience of reading a novel set in the publishing industry, but although a couple of people at the launch had said that they found the book hard to put down I on the contrary had the opposite experience. It was eminently put-downable. The central characters failed to grab my attention or sympathy and the story line plodded on with grim determination, building momentum only towards the very end. Davidar should definitely stick to publishing, a writer he is not.
The real-life story of a manuscript that evoked an instant rave and contract from Faber’s editor at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair, Jeet Thayil’s first novel Narcopolis, makes for far more compelling reading. David Godwin is also Thayil’s agent; interestingly Narcopolis was rejected by several Indian publishers though it created waves at Frankfurt, no doubt because it doesn’t follow the tried and true pattern of Indian writing in English, a formula Indian publishers instantly recognize and rush to acquire rights to. On the contrary as the Faber editor said:
Narcopolis has more in common with Burroughs, Irvine Welsh or Lawrence Durrell than it does Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh; it is literally (pun intended) a shot-in-the-arm for the Anglo-Indian novel, and come publication in early 2012 I hope you will agree. It is a spectacularly addictive opium-driven dream of a novel which, through a cast of pimps, pushers, poets, gangsters and eunuchs, illustrates the past thirty years in Bombay, in virtuoso style.
The first sentence of the novel runs to three pages and begins compellingly enough:
Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight, like vampire dust – wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world – and now we’re getting to the who of it and I can tell you that I, the I you’re imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone’s voice, trying to remember what it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country, because that’s what it is, not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to, which is why I’m trying to remember how it was that I got into trouble in New York and they sent me back to Bombay to get straight, how I found Rashid’s, and how, one afternoon, I took a taxi through roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and the deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary in their bare feet and air of abandonment, I smoked a pipe and I was sick all day …
Jeet Thayil, better known as a poet and musician, and the editor of Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, was married to Shakti Bhatt, herself a major player in Indian publishing before her untimely death in 2007. One of the highlights of my Delhi visit was finally meeting Jeet (we have friends in common as well as a common caste background–Syrian Christian) and spending a couple of hours with him in Khan Market at a rather cool bar/restaurant called Oz. I had wanted to interview him for my radio show, The Silo, but the ambiance made it impossible though i wasn’t about to complain; to my delight soon after we arrived they started playing Marley and other Jamaican music for the entire time it took us to drink two glasses of red wine, which surprised Jeet who said he couldn’t tell when last he had heard Reggae there. He also told me of three bands in Delhi affecting Jamaican accents and a Reggae concert in Shillong every year on Marley’s birthday.
Jeet was introduced to poetry by his uncle, Dr. A.T. Markose, a distinguished law teacher with an unusual obsession, his house in Kochi was stuffed with books by and on Baudelaire.
Narcopolis is due to hit the bookstores in early 2012, maybe earlier in India. I can’t wait to get my copy.