The clickety-clack from the typewriter of acclaimed writer-journalist TJS George night after night was so soothing that it would lull his young son Jeet Thayil to sleep in the next room. “Perhaps that’s what first introduced me to the world of writing,” says Thayil, shortlisted in the past for the Man Booker Prize and whose latest offering, The Book of Chocolate Saints, was released in November.
“For me, even now that’s a very soothing sound.If I hear it I can fall asleep… Because it is something that I heard a lot as a child… So I think, if you are a child and you see the adults in your life reading, you become a reader. In the same way, when you are a child and see the adults around you writing, you become a writer,” Sahitya Akademi recipient Thayil told IANS in an interview. As a young boy, up till the age of 18, Thayil travelled a lot. Every time his father got a new job somewhere, the whole family would move with him. From Bombay to Patna, then to Delhi, back to Bombay, followed by Hong Kong and then New York, and back again to Hong Kong. But the inspiration too was continuous.
“The first time I read poetry was from his bookshelf,” recalls Thayil — a hardcover first edition of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. “I read Dylan Thomas, Ulysses and James Joyce when I was just 14 or 15.” Thayil said his travels shaped his perspective of the world. “When you are not in one place for very long and when you are exposed to many cultures as a child, I think it makes you more accepting, less judgemental; it makes you more open-minded about the world,” he elaborated. The author-poet’s self-discovery as a writer came at the age of 14 when he first read the English translation of a French poem Le Léthé by Charles Baudelaire, which translates into The River of Forgetfulness.
“I remember it had a physical effect on me, on my body. I felt it physically when I read this poem. My hair stood up. It had a very profound physical effect on me for a few seconds. I found it thrilling. And then I wanted to write something like that. Once that happened, you are changed. You are never the same person again,” Thayil maintained. What followed was a “totally natural process” of learning the art of writing. “In fact, it was so undisciplined because I was teaching myself. I had no idea, I just read everything that I could read. And then I tried to write. No one was there to tell me what’s good or what’s bad. And actually, that’s the only way to do it,” he added.
Thayil’s literary works, particularly his poems, reflect a strong sense of grief and chaos, but he says he was very happy as a child. “But then childhood ended and so did happiness.” What also stopped was his conversations with his father. “We had a lot of problems,” he recalled about his late teens.
After his return to India at 18, Thayil began experimenting with drugs. “And before I knew it, it had become a habit.” His addiction lasted for two long decades, the exact time that he worked as a journalist. “I financed my drugs from my journalism salary. So when I quit drugs at 40-something, I quit working, I didn’t need that job any more. I could just sit and write and write,” he explained. Thayil was back home in India but he no longer had a monthly salary and was working on a novel that would take five years to complete. When he first finished the draft of Narcopolis, it was an 800-page book, from which he carved out the 300-page version. From the 500 pages that were left, he started working on a new book. And split them into two other books, the first of which is The Book of Chocolate Saints.
“It was much bigger than it is now; I deleted about half of the book and then wrote new stuff because once I started working on this, it became a totally different thing from it had been. And there was a moment in 2014 when I thought it was done. But it was nowhere near done. It was only in this last year that it really took its final shape,” he elaborated.
Of course the father-son relationship is back to normal now. The only difference is that it is George who very often asks for Thayil’s feedback on his works these days. And why not, Thayil has come a long way! He won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2012 and a Sahitya Akademi award in 2013. He has also been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Literature Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.
One can just imagine the accolades that will come his way for arguably his best work so far —The Book of Chocolate Saints.