Born in Mamalassery, in Ernakulam district, Kerala, Thayil is the son of the author and editor T. J. S. George. Thayil was mostly educated abroad. He received a Masters in Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College (New York), and is the recipient of grants and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Swiss Arts Council, the British Council and the Rockefeller Foundation.
His first novel, Narcopolis (Faber, 2011), is set mostly in Bombay in the 1970s and ’80s, and sets out to tell the city’s secret history, when opium gave way to new cheap heroin. Thayil has said he wrote the novel: “to create a kind of memorial, to inscribe certain names in stone. As one of the characters [in Narcopolis] says, it is only by repeating the names of the dead that we honour them. I wanted to honour the people I knew in the opium dens, the marginalised, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low; and I wanted to make some record of a world that no longer exists, except within the pages of a book.”
Jeet Thayil’s novel Low (2020) marks the end of a trilogy set in Mumbai–—a city with shades of constant change. It began with Narcopolis in 2012, and was followed by The Book of Chocolate Saints in 2017.
Thayil is the editor of the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, UK, 2008), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin India, 2008) and a collection of essays, Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora (Routledge, 2006). His poetry is included in Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry (United States, 2015).
He is the author of the libretto for the opera Babur in London, commissioned by the UK-based Opera Group with music by the Zürich-based British composer Edward Rushton. The world premiere of Babur took place in Switzerland in 2012, followed by tours to the United Kingdom (performed at theatres in London and Oxford) and India. At the work’s core is an exploration about the complexities of faith and multiculturalism in modern-day Britain. Its action hinges on an imagined encounter between a group of religious fundamentalists and the ghost of Babur, who challenges their plans for a suicide strike.
Thayil is also known as a performance poet and musician. As a songwriter and guitarist, he is one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil (Mumbai, New Delhi).
Thayil was also a guitarist for the psychedelic rock band Atomic Forest in the early 1980s for a brief period.
In 2006 he told the Indian newspaper The Hindu that he had been an alcoholic and an addict for almost two decades.
Awards and honours
In 2012, Thayil’s poetry collection These Errors are Correct was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for English. He was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and The Hindu Literary Prize (2013) for his debut novel Narcopolis. In 2013, Thayil became the first Indian author to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, worth $50,000, for the novel Narcopolis.
The Indian poet Dom Moraes, in his introduction to Thayil’s first book of poems (with poet Vijay Nambisan), Gemini, said that Thayil did not trouble his mind with the concerns of many Indian poets, their Indianness, that he did not make statements that were irrelevant to his work, that his concerns were mainly personal. Thayil, Moraes said, “works his feelings out with care, through colourations of mood rather than through explicit statements.”
About Narcopolis, Thayil said, “I’ve always been suspicious of the novel that paints India in soft focus, a place of loved children and loving elders, of monsoons and mangoes and spices. To equal Bombay as a subject you would have to go much further than the merely nostalgic will allow. The grotesque may be a more accurate means of carrying out such an enterprise.”
Thayil, writes a reviewer for Indian Book Critics, is good when he writes without personal exertions (review for Collected Poems).
- Collected Poems, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2015.
- These Errors Are Correct, Tranquebar Books (EastWest and Westland), Delhi, 2008.
- English, Penguin Books, New Delhi and Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004.
- Apocalypso, Aark Arts, London, 1997,
- Gemini, Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, 1992. (two-poet volume ),
- Narcopolis, Faber and Faber, London, 2012,
- The Book of Chocolate Saints, Aleph, 2017,
- Low, Faber and Faber, 2020,
- Names of the Women, Jonathan Cape, 2021
As an editor
- The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, Bloodaxe UK, 2008
- 60 Indian Poets, Penguin India, 2008
- Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora, Routledge, 2006
- Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: 56 Indian Poets, Fulcrum, 2005
- Vox2: Seven Stories, Sterling Newspapers, India, 1997