To many of his fans, Indian author Jeet Thayil is Bombay’s William Burroughs: a man at the pinnacle of modern drug literature, mainly due to his 2012 debut novel, Narcopolis. That book, nominated for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, was largely set in Mumbai’s opium dens and was inspired by Thayil’s years chasing the dragon. Now he’s back with his third novel, Low, which reads more like a drug hit than a drug haze.
Low tells the story of a weekend in the jolted life of Dominic Ullis, who first appeared as Narcopolis’ narrator. In the new book he flies to Mumbai with his late wife Aki’s ashes as hand luggage, seeking oblivion by using the synthetic stimulant drug mephedrone, also known as “bath salts.” Ullis is fictional, but was a vessel for Thayil to write about his own drug use and grief over the loss of his wife, publisher Shakti Bhatt, who died in 2007. Thayil, born in Kerala in south India in 1959, spoke to VICE from his home in Bangalore.
VICE: You once said that Narcopolis’ tone was intended to “appropriate the narcotic state” of opium. In Low, the main drug taken is mephedrone (bath salts). How did that affect the writing tone?
The drugs are different in Low: cheap, fast and modern, whereas the drugs in Narcopolis are opiates. They're slow, circular, it goes around and it comes back to where it began. Low is like an arrow: It begins and it doesn't stop until it ends. It's this fast ride that hardly gives you time to breathe or to think, and that’s the kind of drugs that are all over the place today.
In Narcopolis the drugs are our vehicle from which to look at a certain era [of Mumbai] that has absolutely vanished. In Low, drugs are the vehicle to look at grief.
Is writing about harrowing personal experiences cathartic?
It's not cathartic at all. That's a myth about writing: that if you write about what really fucks you up, you're not going to be fucked up anymore. It's the opposite: you're even more fucked up. In Narcopolis it was an addiction that consumed 20 years of my life. And in Low it was grief that I'd been attempting to write about for 12 years, and never knew how to write about until I got the idea for the story.
Why write about these things if doing so makes you “more fucked up”?
I just want, at the end of it, some kind of clarity about those experiences. The thing about experiences – travel, for example – is that unless you write about that experience it’s going to flow through you like a glass of wine. You're going to drink it and you're going to pee, and it's gone. None of it will stay in you. If you have an experience that consumed ten years of your life and you don't put it together or find some clarity about it… what a waste.
Do you get sick of being seen as a sort of “Bombay Burroughs”?
A lot of people say that, but it's alright with me if that's all you can see. It just shows me your limitation as a reader. There are a lot of people who would only buy Narcopolis because they think it's a druggy book about Bombay. There are people – young men, especially – who read Narcopolis and Low because they get a frisson of excitement because it [taking drugs] is circumscribed in polite society.
Do you read much from the drug literature pantheon?
In my teens and 20s, I was an avid consumer of the drug pantheon. I still have those books, but I haven't looked at them in 30 years and I have no intention of looking at them again. If I were pigeonholed and limited to the bracket of drug literature I would be bored to tears. There’s a world outside that I find far more fascinating than rereading The Naked Lunch [by William Boroughs].
But in a recent interview you recommended My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: a somewhat drugs-focused novel.
I don't consider it a drug novel. It’s a great novel that uses drugs as a kind of shorthand and narrative device. That's what I've tried to do with Narcopolis and Low. The drugs are just a lens with which to view a society.
Those books were set in Mumbai, but you also spent years in New York. How did you find U.S. drug culture compared to India’s?
Junkies are the same all over the world. In Bombay, you’d hang out in some slum to score, looking out for the police. In New York, you’d go to somebody's apartment in Greenwich Village, then come out and wonder where the cops were. It's the same, and the high is the same, except it was better quality heroin in New York. And of course, because of that, it was far more addictive.
I was doing heroin in New York from ’99 to ’02, then I got onto a methadone program, then I weaned myself off methadone. The counselor at the Greenwich House methadone program told me that in 25 years nobody had weaned themselves off it there. Their idea was to keep you on methadone, keep you so wasted that you're no longer a danger to the respectable commuter on the street. But I reduced my dosage from week to week then from day to day. It was really painful, but I did it.
Indian society is arguably more conservative than the U.S.’s with regards to drugs. Do you notice differences in how you’re received abroad compared to in India?
There's a definite difference. If I'm at a festival in a city like Madras [now called Chennai] there are always ladies in the front row in starched silk saris, glaring at me, disapproving of every word I’m saying. In their minds I've written a book about drugs, I used to be a heroin addict… and here I am, talking about it like I’m not ashamed of it. They just can't get their heads around that. I never get that in London. But I enjoy those glares from the ladies in the saris in the front row. I like offending them a bit, it makes my day.
To what extent is Dominic Ullis, Low’s main character, you?
A tiny fraction, I hope. He's not exactly an inspiring character, is he? He's funny and unshockable and doesn't judge, but I don't know if he's someone you would like to be. In fact, I think you might go out of your way to not be anything like that person. So I hope there isn't that much of me and him, or him and me.
In the book, Ullis takes heroin to get closer to a vision of his late wife. Did that idea come from a place of reality, or is it pure fiction?
Oh, my god… I didn't expect to be asked that question, and nobody has so far… [that] really kind of… gave me goosebumps. Let's just say it is based on a real experience.
Near-suicidal drug binges aside, Ullis is indeed funny, especially when he gets involved in [mild spoiler alert] situations such as human ashes being snorted. Can we thank Keith Richards for inspiring that fictional act in Low ?
I would have written that anyway, it was just something that occurred to me. The point about snorting somebody's ashes is that it's a way of putting them inside you forever.
Was it tough adding comedy to a book with so much tragedy?
I didn't want to make a book about grief. It is comedy, underlined by a tragic event, which is also the reason I wanted it to have a note of hope. And also because this is the end of my Bombay trilogy. I'm now done with Bombay and I'm done with writing about drugs – and thank God.
Beyond the ladies in the saris in the festival front rows, do you get accused of glamorizing drugs much?
I've been accused of that several times. It always astonished me, because if you read Narcopolis and Low, the last thing they do is glamorize drugs. If you read Low and at the end of it feel like snorting meow meow [mephedrone], I have to wonder about your mental health. If you read Narcopolis and at the end of it want to do heroin, there's something deeply wrong with you.
It’d be hard to argue that Low shows drugs in a positive light, but there’s a certain romance to Narcopolis , with its hazy days in the character Rashid’s opium den with rogues and poets.
I agree that perhaps it's a romanticisation rather than glamorization. I don't have to read Narcopolis to miss the opium world in so many ways. I would give anything to be in Rashid's den right now, smoking a pipe. I would absolutely not like to take drugs [regularly] again. But I would love to smoke a pipe of opium. And the point is: it's safe to say this because there’s very little opium anymore. It's a romantic notion.
So, you miss chasing that lifestyle?
When I hear the word “chase” I immediately think of it in two ways, because for many years I chased heroin on a strip of foil. For me and my friends from that time, we don't use the word “chase” without hearing a certain nuance in it.
Even if you quit, even if your experience was hellish, there's a part of you that never quite gets free of it. And there's a part of you that involuntarily romanticizes it. It becomes a nostalgic, rose-tinted craving. A yearning for the past. There are times when I might smell an earthy odor in a wood or forest somewhere, a musky, moldy odor, and I'm transported back to 1979 or 1982 and Shuklaji Street [in Bombay’s former red light district].
The thing with opium is, it's such a long, drawn-out process. When you miss opium it's not death you're yearning for, it's not suicide you're looking for. But when I miss heroin, that is a death call. A siren call that, actually, all what you want is to die. With any kind of addiction there comes a point when you have to ask yourself whether you want to live or you want to die. And once you ask that question, it's very clear what you have to do.
Low is published by Faber and Faber