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24.11.2017

Writer Jeet Thayil’s apartment crouches in a quiet, old colony in South Delhi, with a terrace garden that overlooks a small park. His dedicated workspace is also green, a felt table - the kind you can find in a lawyer’s office - which neatly gathers together objects that “washed up here.” His MacBook is folded shut next to a green oil-lamp made of glass, Chinese woodcuts, a white candle, a lone light bulb, rocks from different worlds, and dried leaves. His second novel, a concerted attempt to chronicle Bombay’s cultural history, The Book of Chocolate Saints (Aleph), is also here. 
 
We talk to Jeet about the book and the six years of hard work that went into it; his bookshelf; and his disappointment at the lack of archival instincts in Indians.
 
You worked on The Book of Chocolate Saints for over six years? In a previous interview you said, "In that sense,  I feel bulletproof against my inner critic.” Tell us about that. 
 
I rewrote The Book of Chocolate Saints several times over the course of six years, and two of those rewrites were purely on the level of the sentence. At one point, I took out most of the commas and then put some of them back. That was when I knew it was done. I worked so hard on this book that there is no needling critic’s voice in my head telling me I should have worked harder.
 
We hear the book cover has an interesting story? 
 
The cover image is a detail of a painting by Manu Parekh. Aleph Book Company’s creative director Bena Sareen designed it, and I think it works on more than one level. It is a striking image, of course. She added subtle touches, for instance the gold lines that gild Christ’s halo, so subtle it is visible only at certain angles. Manu was a friend of Souza’s and you can see the influence in this painting. When researching the novel, I interviewed Manu about Souza. Some of those stories are in the book. In all these ways, the cover is organic to the contents.
 
Talk to us about your writing process. 
 
I try to write first thing in the morning. In the afternoon, when I am sick of myself, I may go to a café. While writing this book, I worked in cafés all over Delhi and the world, including Brisbane, Ubud, Saigon, Almhult, Shanghai and Berlin. In the last year I spent a lot of time in a café at SDA market in Delhi, because I rarely ran into anyone I knew there.
 
What do you absolutely need on hand when you're writing?
 
Coffee and poetry.
 
Laetitia Zecchini and Anjali Nerlekar brought out books in 2014 and in 2017 respectively about the post-60s era of Bombay poetry and literary culture. Why do you think there's a renewed interest in this time period? 
 
I don’t agree that there’s renewed interest. Two swallows don’t make a summer. The question is, why are there so few scholarly studies about the period? Why is there no fiction, cinema, or theatre about a peak moment in Bombay’s literary life? It was an extraordinary period and it received very little attention. I think it proves once again that Indians have no archival instinct. We do not value our invaluable cultural history.
 
Describe your bookshelf. 
 
My bookshelves are separated by genre. In my study are the poetry bookshelves. In the bedroom are the Americans, the Russians, and the Beats. In the living room, you’ll meet the Indians and the French. Cookbooks and reference manuals are everywhere.
 
Where do you usually buy your books? 
 
I like secondhand bookshops where I look for rare poetry volumes. I also buy books at airports, I’m sorry to say.
 
What’s it like to be a writer in Delhi? Why did you choose to live here?
 
I haven’t chosen to live here. As with most things, a series of chance events brought me here. I’m moving out at the end of the year.
 
What do the next six months look like for you? 
 
I’m moving out of Delhi, because I like to breathe easy. I will be spending much of next year in Vietnam. My next book is based there.
 
This story was contributed by Urvashi Bahuguna, a writer based in New Delhi.

 

Photo Source: abc.net.au

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