reviews and essays

“If there is such a thing as happiness”

Sorrow and sensibility in the poetry of Jeet Thayil

By PALASH KRISHNA MEHROTRA | 1 August 2016

I AM SIXTEEN. I have gone along with my parents to a Christmas lunch party in Mumbai thrown by the poet Dom Moraes and his wife, the actress Leela Naidu. Jeet is on his knees offering a bunch of red roses to a tall, striking young woman. He seems to be reciting one of his poems to her. Later, at the same party, I push open the door to the bathroom. Jeet’s in the bathtub with the same woman. They are kissing. I’ve never seen two people kissing. I say sorry and shut the door.

I return to the party and resume a conversation I was having with a friend of Jeet’s, the photographer Madhu Kapparath. It’s 1992, and Prince’s hit song that year is ‘Sexy Motherfucker.’ Madonna has just released her album Erotica: “I don’t think you know what pain is/ It can give you so much pleasure.” Madhu and I talk about Madonna and Prince, while Jeet spends the rest of the afternoon closeted in the washroom.

I am wearing a cheap clip-on earring in my right ear. The art critic Geeti Sen, who’s just arrived at the party, turns to my father, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and asks: “Arvind, is your son gay?” My father says he doesn’t know. Geeti says: “I ask because he is wearing an earring in his right ear.” Oh that, says my father, could be because he has just come from Allahabad and doesn’t know which ear to clamp his earring on. This was true. We had just arrived in Mumbai from Allahabad for our annual trip. I was desperate to be cool. My left ear didn’t know what my right ear was doing.

I have met Jeet on and off since, though never known him too well. (Recently, I asked him to contribute to an anthology on drinking that I edited.) It always seemed to me that he belonged more to my father’s generation of writers than mine.

IN THE PREFACE to his recent Collected Poems, Jeet Thayil writes about an important coincidence: he was born in 1959, the same year that Billie Holiday, the famous American jazz singer, died. In April, he told me over the phone, “I think heroin diminished her gift, as it did mine… I am not saying some aspect of her spirit passed on to me because I was born the year she died, but the thought has occurred. Blame it on catastrophic junkie thinking.”

He has a dream, he writes in the preface, about Holiday and the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño smoking smack in a Parsi sanatorium on Bandra Bandstand, a waterfront walkway in Mumbai. Dawn, a recurring theme in Thayil’s poetry, lights up the dirty sea and shit-stained rocks—“A matchstick burned in her slender fingers and a strand of fresh sea-weed was entangled in her hair.” The dream ends with Bolaño gathering his briefcase and leaving. He tells Thayil: “Only poetry is not shit. Stop wasting so much time.”

Thayil ends his preface with a declaration of sorts, in light of which this collection takes on a special significance. “These Errors are Correct (2008), written in dedication to my wife, who died, is the last full-length collection of poems I intend to publish. For various reasons, I am unable to equal the poems in that book and it seems to me that if you cannot equal or improve on your last book, it is better not to publish at all. I am fifty-five years old. Time, once a friend, is now the enemy. Each day is a gift that must be returned. … This is my life and these are my collected poems. There is nothing collected about any of it.”

This, then, is it—the final book, an almost sacred moment. This is Jeet Thayil’s victory—Jeet! Victory!—lap. In the meanwhile, Thayil pays heed to the Bolaño of his dreams: “Stop wasting your time.” Each day is a gift. But there are days when nothing happens or things don’t go according to plan. Such days are marked by sweet surrender. As Thayil writes in ‘Blue Ghazal’:

Give up your pen—you won’t make a rhyme tonight.
The moon’s cursed. Words are unsublime tonight […] Your killer smiles, offers Billie and a glass of wine.
I accept she’s my partner in crime tonight
Fake it to make it, AA’s coffee drinkers intone.
No thanks, I’ll take whisky and a white line tonight.
Self-loathing, thy proper name is poverty—
and poetry that wins no Guggenheim tonight.

Thayil is best known for Narcopolis, his award-winning, opium-tinged 2012 novel. But he is a poet first and foremost, having published four collections: These Errors Are Correct, in 2008, English, in 2004, Apocalypso, in 1997, and Gemini, in 1992.

“This is my life.” Thayil’s poetry is deeply personal. It has been so since Gemini, which had poems by him and Vijay Nambisan, was published, the year Prince changed his name to an androgynous symbol and Madonna released Erotica, the year I chanced upon Thayil in Dom Moraes’s bathtub, when I was wearing the right earring in the wrong ear.

Speaking of which, Thayil’s ear is always attuned to his inner self. In his introduction to Gemini, Moraes comments on the personal nature of Thayil’s poetry. Thayil does not believe in leaving himself out, and this marks a departure from tradition: “One trouble about much Indian poetry is that it is difficult to detect a personality behind the words, perhaps because in many cases the personality is hardly present to be detected.”

That break with the past can be attributed, at least in part, to Thayil’s aloofness from established poetic circles in his youth. He said to me that, in his early 20s, he felt “utterly isolated” as a poet in Mumbai. “Arun [Kolatkar] was unapproachable, Adil [Jussawalla] slightly less so, and I was too shy to approach Dom, though he was a family friend.” The beginning of his friendship with Moraes marked a turning point: “When I did become friends with Dom, I was 26, and the friendship changed everything for me. I came to know some of the Bombay poets through him.”

Some of this isolation was self-inflicted and self-conscious: “I read the Americans and the Europeans almost exclusively,” he said. “In any case, I didn’t have much of a sense of myself as an Indian poet at the time. Call it arrogance, hubris or good sense, but I wanted nothing to do with the poetry-society type of poet I met on occasion. They were my contemporaries and I felt no connection.”
Among his contemporaries, there was just one he felt an affinity with: the poet Vijay Nambisan, who Thayil described as “the only poet I was close to. Let me add: we poets in our youth are convinced of our genius. Then we grow older and we realise how far from it we are. Today, I see myself differently, very much as an Indian poet.”

In a short piece he wrote for the Times of India many years ago, Thayil describes a fundamental choice the poet makes at the beginning of his career—that of putting art over life. Why, he muses, does the writer write? “His rewards are small when they do exist at all. God knows there isn’t money in what he does.” Yet Thayil made his choice, and paid the price. He writes in ‘Self-Portrait’:

Unhappiness is a kind of yoga, he tells himself
each morning, a breath meditation; besides,
do you want to be happy or do you want to write?

Some of Thayil’s earliest influences were the twentieth-century American poets John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and Hart Crane. These poets, and others of their circle, had turbulent lives and died violent deaths. Among themselves, they often talked of the kind of intellectual and social climate that is damaging to talent and genius. They felt they were living in a period inhospitable to poetry, and blamed society for their lack of an audience.

A similar sense of isolation flows through Thayil’s work, though he feels it in a different time and place. As he writes in the preface, “The poetry books are out of print, but that is how it should be if you’re an Indian poet writing in English. The libretti were privately printed, which means they were never in print in the first place. … again, this is business as usual for the Indian poet.”

Still, Thayil’s experiences as a young poet were qualitatively different from those of the American poets. He told me he laughed when he read about their feelings of isolation. “At least they had each other, not to mention literary journals, prizes, teaching positions, editors who understood them and publishers who wanted them. If you wanted to know about isolation you had to be a young Indian poet in the eighties and nineties.” There was no sense of community then, none of the false bonhomie of Facebook, which the younger poets of today thrive on. But that, maybe, wasn’t such a bad thing. “We were lone wolves, all of us, and I think it helped the writing.”

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that one of the most powerful works in Collected Poems, ‘Other People’s Deaths,’ reimagines the suicides or sudden deaths of Berryman, Schwartz and Crane.

On Berryman:
Think of him cutting his throat as he
jumps, making doubly certain, the ice
too thick to let him drown, but hard
enough for the fall to kill […] On Schwartz:
The body lay unrecognized
for three days. A writer’s
joke: there were no readers of
modern poetry at the morgue.

On Crane:
He had, always, a foot in the sea.
Voyages and islands underlie his lines, and
that’s where he went in the end,
after breakfast, to forever be lost at sea.

I asked Thayil if he identified with these poets’ lives, and whether he also felt the allure of self-destruction. “They were damaged, alcoholic, self-destructive and absolutely uncompromising when it came to art. As a young man, I admired these qualities.”

REVIEWING THE COMPLETE POEMS OF PHILIP LARKIN for the American literary magazine the Threepenny Review, the English poet and critic James Fenton suggests how to read Larkin for the first time: you read his individual volumes, in reverse order of publication. I thought of this when I started Thayil’s Collected Poems. It’s arranged in the way Fenton would have approved of.

“Collected,” according to Fenton, does not have to mean “Complete.” There are poems from the oeuvre that should be left out. And who is the best person to decide what goes in and what does not? The poet himself. That’s another point Thayil and Fenton are agreed upon. Thayil explains the process of choosing what went into this volume. “While compiling it, I left some poems unchanged, some I discarded, and some I rewrote, because among poets, the rewrite tradition is an honourable one.”

Reading Thayil—front to back—is like taking a fast train into the dark soul of the night. The stations whiz by in a blur. Poem on poem repeats a grim truth: everything will and must fall away, leaving in its wake a terrible beauty, the perfect artefact—the poem itself. But even the poem does not offer certainty; it is a slippery eel. As Thayil writes in ‘Where This One Came From’ (a play on Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s ‘Where Will the Next One Come From’):

Poem is as poem does & is done by.
Now watch poem sleep the pure slumber
of children, drunks, fools. By first light
she will vanish, leaving you, shadow.

In Thayil’s verse, there is a hardness to the melancholy; and, when you least expect it, a lacerating tenderness: “I’m my father and my son grown old,” he writes in ‘Spiritus Mundi.’ Even while Thayil’s poems are personal, they are not solipsistic—far from it. They contain within them dead emperors; wayward creatures; figures from mythology; cities of the world; a one-eyed lion at a Kabul zoo; a Sumo wrestler; the temple to Pashupatinath in Kathmandu—in a poem named after it: “A bull of beaten gold/balanced on balls.” The more Thayil looks inwards, the more his gaze turns outwards too. He writes in ‘How to Be a Girl’: “No: I sit. I pull the door shut,/ the cubicle expands like feathers.”

Thayil’s themes are like fetishes. A fetish needn’t necessarily arouse you each time, but it is always your starting point, something you return to again and again. We are helpless against our singular and multiple perversions. They haunt us like ghosts: “Listen, offstage we live desperate lives,/ offstage we kill our own daily babies.” Here’s a list of Thayil’s most prominent fetishes: dawn or first light; birds; language; rented rooms; heroin; his wife, Shakti Bhatt; bones; flesh; nerves and neurons; dreams; memory; dream-memory; the moon; family; all of us; the craft of poetry; death; dead poets; the passage of time.

When a poet sits down to write, she doesn’t think of the big theme. She starts with something elemental, then chases the line from there. Thayil writes about this process in ‘Dear Editor’: “You start with a line and follow it through,/ the sonnet writes the sonnet, not you.” Sometimes, the line just stops and stands, like it does in Thayil’s ‘Letter to America’: “Nothing moves,/ not a leaf, not a line, not mine/ in any case, nothing but the/ beat of a stilled will.” Of course, in Thayil’s case, this line could also be a line of heroin. Whichever way, a line is a line is a line, and you have to chase it to make it.
Thayil’s lines, however wild, druggy or wicked their subject may be, are controlled by tight formal structures. He writes free verse, but also ghazals, sonnets, sestinas and rhymed syllabics. There is an obsessive commitment to craft and poetic discipline.

Thayil unpacked a couple of his rhymed syllabic poems for me one Sunday morning. “‘The Miniature’ is two six-line stanzas. Each line has ten syllables except for lines two and five, which have four and six syllables respectively, adding up to ten. Another way of looking at this stanza is to see it as five lines of ten syllables each and to see lines two and five as one line, broken up.”

Her wheatish complexion lit by the sun,
a woman leans
into latticed stonework and breathes, summoned
by her husband who wants her to watch him,
watch from behind the screens
as he decides a man’s life. […]

“‘The New Island’ is four five-line stanzas. The first three lines have ten syllables each, while lines four and five have four and six syllables each—adding up to ten. Again, the stanza can be thought of as a quatrain if you see the last two lines as one broken-up line.”

Once, carried by the rains of September,
a boat lifted free of its mooring place,
of a shed become part of the river,
and floated past
the porch, where I caught her.

“The most intricate rhymed syllabic poem in the collection is the last one, ‘A Home for the Holidays,’ so intricate that I am unable to unravel it this morning.”

IN THAYIL’S POEMS, mornings often hold demons, signal danger. ‘Tentative Like Us’ reads: “Mornings opaque with possibility,/ every kind of strange weather at the edge of/ day.” It takes death—for goodbyes are also a way of practising for death—to bring a man alive. In ‘This Mortal,’ he writes, “Hello is fine, but there’s nothing/ like goodbye to make the man/ truly come alive. Look at him/ there, finally aware of morning.”

Depression is a “twin brother,” the “better man,” he writes in one poem. In another, he says, “Of course/ there’s hope, there’s always hope, but not for us.” Does anything, then, really matter? Why live at all? As he writes in ‘This

Mortal’:
Bitter knowledge, tight response:
Why be true, when everything returns
to dust and meaninglessness?
I could say none of this matters
but the truth is it does,
each demise
matters so much it hurts
the mouth into words
that ride the river some call Remorse.

In ‘Elegiac,’ it is hope that renders grief meaningless:
how can death be not useless
why stain the air with grief
of my own, when so much hope
persists? […] [italics in original]

But all is not darkness. In ‘Pushkin Knew Heaven (A Place Where Nothing Happens),’ dawn brings a lightness of being and a feeling approximating contentment. Happiness is when nothing happens. There’s beauty in stillness:
The first hint of first light
brings me instantly awake.
You stir gently in your sleep,
dig yourself deeper into bed,
my pillow over your head.
The newspaper at the door is cold
from its journey across the city. I
make coffee, as I do each morning,
scan the headlines, sip from the cup,
look out at the quiet street.
There it is, all of it, and it’s nothing
short of a miracle.
If there is such a thing as happiness,
it is this.

“EACH DEMISE,/ MATTERS.” Thayil wrote this in ‘This Mortal,’ before his wife, Shakti Bhatt, died in 2007, when she was just 27 years old. It is in the poems about her that his grief is distilled into its purest form. The cannabis leaves of grief are rubbed between Thayil’s palms, the nimble fingers of a child (“if I catch myself talking to you/ I’m always surprised at the words I hear/ of regret and dumb boyish devotion”), until they yield pure resin, as in ‘53 Views of Abstraction, 1 Rhyme, 0 Blackbirds’:

47. Hi,
48. Shakti, it’s New Year’s Eve, 2007, 5.49
49. p.m. We’re in a coffee shop in Manali and I’m
50. Looking at the ice
51. On the Himalayas and writing this line.

52. I have no idea at the time
53. But in three months to the day you will die.

In ‘The Haunts,’ one of the most transparent, affecting and hurting poems in the collection, he sees her everywhere and in everything, and pleads with her to come back from the dead: “as a telepathic ginger cat,” “as fear glimpsed from the window of a plane,” as “a cherry red Stratocaster Elite,” “as bad heroin in a Delhi alley,” “as good heroin in Zurich,” “as a bloated white face on the ceiling of a borrowed room,” “as a dead girl with blood-red lips/ blood-red eyes and cheeks/ blood-red wrung neck,/ as crematorium smell of/ camphor and meat,/ as whatever you want,/ just come back.”

Thayil gets you addicted to his pain until you want more and are begging for it. In ‘Flowers for a Parijat,’ Thayil remembers with fondness: “What you loved most was the where,/ a clear road, dry earth and sky,/ space infinite in between”—that is, before guilt storms his fortress of bereavement:
And in that rush, who was I?
Designated ferryman,
loyal seeing-eye companion,
cool handler of your crashes
and collected
works, elected
the keeper of your ashes […] But I was gone, out among
the pretty and the jaded,
the night I most was needed.
To carry now in my head
blood images
black smeared pages
out of time, of you just dead […]

Guilt is a recurring emotion, a sentence for life: “it’s just that you don’t want to hear her say,/ Why, why did you not look after me.” The poet is there, looking after her in her afterlife among the living, protecting her from people, though everything seems meaningless now. He writes in ‘After’:
The tables there are long enough to fit
them all,
the many generations who will sit
together in their prime, will drink and tell
each other things they could not say before,
when words slammed open like a door
and such occasions did not end without
a scene.

And more has changed, the gaze that would report
your gaze is gone. You see the eyes you seem
to know, but you cannot remember how,
or if it matters anymore.

“SHALL I TAKE THIS OPIUM OR NOT?” the French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau asks in his autobiographical account Opium: The Diary of His Cure. “It is useless to put on a carefree air, dear poet. I will take it if my work wants me to.
And if opium wants me to.” Heroin is Thayil territory—its seductions, its ravages, its itchy warmth leave a “vapour-trail” on several pages in this book—“the needle mounts its bite of love.” Margaret Crosswood, in her introduction to Cocteau’s diary, notes that he did go back to it from time to time but “never again did he lose his equilibrium to such a destructive extent.” Thayil talks of his addiction in one poem as “a long, reasoned derangement.”

In ‘Praise for the Nod,’ from Gemini, Thayil lovingly describes the ritual of taking the drug: “I slide in the tip,/ a red flower blooms/ in my glass syringe.” In ‘Hymn to Him,’ the monkey on the back becomes a smelly dog:

Oh take me to some quiet where
and let this frantic scratching cease.
I’m tired of the dog I bear
and all his restless tyrannies.
By the time of ‘Recovery, Partial,’ from These Errors are Correct, when the poet is 44 years old, he writes:
I have a scar on my belly,
old punctures on my arms,
a bad liver.
I have problems sleeping.
But I know I can wake
without hearing the old command,
‘Feed me or else.’

Days gone doing heroin are days that won’t come back. “What was the point of it?” Thayil asks in ‘The Heroin Sestina’—“The stoned/ life, the chased, snorted, shot life. Some low/ comedy with a cast of strangers.” But, as he
goes on to describe it, the point was precisely this:

[…] the wasted time,
which comes back lovely sometimes,
a ghost sense say, say that hard ache taste
back in your throat, the warm heroin
drip, the hit, the rush, the whack, the stone.
You want it now […] Thayil doesn’t sit in judgment on heroin. Some things in the world can’t be divided into good and bad. That would be simplifying “the amaze of heroin.” He knows the score.
[…] I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it.

With Thayil, even the everyday has a touch of the perverse. In one of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘Trout Fishing at Night,’ a hysterical boy runs to his mother. “‘I was standing at the window and a man waved/ his fish at me,’” he says. The sceptical mother “rues his world’s commonplace disasters,” and “lets him lead her back.”

In the house across the way, in a yellow
square of kitchen light, a shirtless man
stalks the floor, hair plastered down his head,
animated in conversation with himself.
When he stops directly in front of them,
as if he knows they’re there, she clutches the boy.
A silvery trout dangles from the man’s fly.

The poem can be read as one about the corruption of innocence, but it also makes you feel the loneliness of the flasher, who has no one to talk to. He is having a conversation with himself—and not just any ordinary conversation, but an animated one. Words are frothing up inside him. His penis is a smoke signal begging to be noticed.

I read these poems over a period of three months, following Fenton’s advice: “Read poems in small batches; don’t tax your digestive system.” While reading the poems, I had the uncanny experience of objects from the outside world making their way into the pages I was reading—although, thankfully, not the trout.

One night, while on a batch of poems full of death and bones (“When your skin falls off,/ sere as bone,/ laugh out loud”), I felt, for some reason, like going out and looking at the moon. I went out and there it was—a big, friendly moon keeping a solitary watch. A lone star dangled below it like a pendant. When I returned to the book, on the page I’d opened at random I found: “Fat moon in a smudged sky,/ God’s unblinking night-time eye.”

I suppose I was trying to escape from the way Thayil looks at things—perhaps finding it too claustrophobic (“I jump repeatedly against the window/… until the glass smites my face”). But, as I discovered, there was no way I could run from it. His language had recast my reality.

And the bare naked reality is this—a lifetime guarantee for a fragile product. In ‘Life Lessons,’ he writes:
Children die, predeceasing parents. Odd
that we eat birds and animals, growing
like us. Look closely at rivers, trees.
People die, that’s what they do.

I AM SIXTEEN. I have gone along with my parents to a Christmas lunch party in Mumbai thrown by the poet Dom Moraes and his wife, the actress Leela Naidu. Jeet is on his knees offering a bunch of red roses to a tall, striking young woman. He seems to be reciting one of his poems to her. Later, at the same party, I push open the door to the bathroom. Jeet’s in the bathtub with the same woman. They are kissing. I’ve never seen two people kissing. I say sorry and shut the door.

I return to the party and resume a conversation I was having with a friend of Jeet’s, the photographer Madhu Kapparath. It’s 1992, and Prince’s hit song that year is ‘Sexy Motherfucker.’ Madonna has just released her album Erotica: “I don’t think you know what pain is/ It can give you so much pleasure.” Madhu and I talk about Madonna and Prince, while Jeet spends the rest of the afternoon closeted in the washroom.

I am wearing a cheap clip-on earring in my right ear. The art critic Geeti Sen, who’s just arrived at the party, turns to my father, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and asks: “Arvind, is your son gay?” My father says he doesn’t know. Geeti says: “I ask because he is wearing an earring in his right ear.” Oh that, says my father, could be because he has just come from Allahabad and doesn’t know which ear to clamp his earring on. This was true. We had just arrived in Mumbai from Allahabad for our annual trip. I was desperate to be cool. My left ear didn’t know what my right ear was doing.

I have met Jeet on and off since, though never known him too well. (Recently, I asked him to contribute to an anthology on drinking that I edited.) It always seemed to me that he belonged more to my father’s generation of writers than mine.

IN THE PREFACE to his recent Collected Poems, Jeet Thayil writes about an important coincidence: he was born in 1959, the same year that Billie Holiday, the famous American jazz singer, died. In April, he told me over the phone, “I think heroin diminished her gift, as it did mine… I am not saying some aspect of her spirit passed on to me because I was born the year she died, but the thought has occurred. Blame it on catastrophic junkie thinking.”

He has a dream, he writes in the preface, about Holiday and the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño smoking smack in a Parsi sanatorium on Bandra Bandstand, a waterfront walkway in Mumbai. Dawn, a recurring theme in Thayil’s poetry, lights up the dirty sea and shit-stained rocks—“A matchstick burned in her slender fingers and a strand of fresh sea-weed was entangled in her hair.” The dream ends with Bolaño gathering his briefcase and leaving. He tells Thayil: “Only poetry is not shit. Stop wasting so much time.”

Thayil ends his preface with a declaration of sorts, in light of which this collection takes on a special significance. “These Errors are Correct (2008), written in dedication to my wife, who died, is the last full-length collection of poems I intend to publish. For various reasons, I am unable to equal the poems in that book and it seems to me that if you cannot equal or improve on your last book, it is better not to publish at all. I am fifty-five years old. Time, once a friend, is now the enemy. Each day is a gift that must be returned. … This is my life and these are my collected poems. There is nothing collected about any of it.”

This, then, is it—the final book, an almost sacred moment. This is Jeet Thayil’s victory—Jeet! Victory!—lap. In the meanwhile, Thayil pays heed to the Bolaño of his dreams: “Stop wasting your time.” Each day is a gift. But there are days when nothing happens or things don’t go according to plan. Such days are marked by sweet surrender. As Thayil writes in ‘Blue Ghazal’:

Give up your pen—you won’t make a rhyme tonight.
The moon’s cursed. Words are unsublime tonight […] Your killer smiles, offers Billie and a glass of wine.
I accept she’s my partner in crime tonight
Fake it to make it, AA’s coffee drinkers intone.
No thanks, I’ll take whisky and a white line tonight.
Self-loathing, thy proper name is poverty—
and poetry that wins no Guggenheim tonight.

Thayil is best known for Narcopolis, his award-winning, opium-tinged 2012 novel. But he is a poet first and foremost, having published four collections: These Errors Are Correct, in 2008, English, in 2004, Apocalypso, in 1997, and Gemini, in 1992.

“This is my life.” Thayil’s poetry is deeply personal. It has been so since Gemini, which had poems by him and Vijay Nambisan, was published, the year Prince changed his name to an androgynous symbol and Madonna released Erotica, the year I chanced upon Thayil in Dom Moraes’s bathtub, when I was wearing the right earring in the wrong ear.

Speaking of which, Thayil’s ear is always attuned to his inner self. In his introduction to Gemini, Moraes comments on the personal nature of Thayil’s poetry. Thayil does not believe in leaving himself out, and this marks a departure from tradition: “One trouble about much Indian poetry is that it is difficult to detect a personality behind the words, perhaps because in many cases the personality is hardly present to be detected.”

That break with the past can be attributed, at least in part, to Thayil’s aloofness from established poetic circles in his youth. He said to me that, in his early 20s, he felt “utterly isolated” as a poet in Mumbai. “Arun [Kolatkar] was unapproachable, Adil [Jussawalla] slightly less so, and I was too shy to approach Dom, though he was a family friend.” The beginning of his friendship with Moraes marked a turning point: “When I did become friends with Dom, I was 26, and the friendship changed everything for me. I came to know some of the Bombay poets through him.”

Some of this isolation was self-inflicted and self-conscious: “I read the Americans and the Europeans almost exclusively,” he said. “In any case, I didn’t have much of a sense of myself as an Indian poet at the time. Call it arrogance, hubris or good sense, but I wanted nothing to do with the poetry-society type of poet I met on occasion. They were my contemporaries and I felt no connection.”
Among his contemporaries, there was just one he felt an affinity with: the poet Vijay Nambisan, who Thayil described as “the only poet I was close to. Let me add: we poets in our youth are convinced of our genius. Then we grow older and we realise how far from it we are. Today, I see myself differently, very much as an Indian poet.”

In a short piece he wrote for the Times of India many years ago, Thayil describes a fundamental choice the poet makes at the beginning of his career—that of putting art over life. Why, he muses, does the writer write? “His rewards are small when they do exist at all. God knows there isn’t money in what he does.” Yet Thayil made his choice, and paid the price. He writes in ‘Self-Portrait’:

Unhappiness is a kind of yoga, he tells himself
each morning, a breath meditation; besides,
do you want to be happy or do you want to write?

Some of Thayil’s earliest influences were the twentieth-century American poets John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and Hart Crane. These poets, and others of their circle, had turbulent lives and died violent deaths. Among themselves, they often talked of the kind of intellectual and social climate that is damaging to talent and genius. They felt they were living in a period inhospitable to poetry, and blamed society for their lack of an audience.

A similar sense of isolation flows through Thayil’s work, though he feels it in a different time and place. As he writes in the preface, “The poetry books are out of print, but that is how it should be if you’re an Indian poet writing in English. The libretti were privately printed, which means they were never in print in the first place. … again, this is business as usual for the Indian poet.”

Still, Thayil’s experiences as a young poet were qualitatively different from those of the American poets. He told me he laughed when he read about their feelings of isolation. “At least they had each other, not to mention literary journals, prizes, teaching positions, editors who understood them and publishers who wanted them. If you wanted to know about isolation you had to be a young Indian poet in the eighties and nineties.” There was no sense of community then, none of the false bonhomie of Facebook, which the younger poets of today thrive on. But that, maybe, wasn’t such a bad thing. “We were lone wolves, all of us, and I think it helped the writing.”

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that one of the most powerful works in Collected Poems, ‘Other People’s Deaths,’ reimagines the suicides or sudden deaths of Berryman, Schwartz and Crane.

On Berryman:
Think of him cutting his throat as he
jumps, making doubly certain, the ice
too thick to let him drown, but hard
enough for the fall to kill […] On Schwartz:
The body lay unrecognized
for three days. A writer’s
joke: there were no readers of
modern poetry at the morgue.

On Crane:
He had, always, a foot in the sea.
Voyages and islands underlie his lines, and
that’s where he went in the end,
after breakfast, to forever be lost at sea.

I asked Thayil if he identified with these poets’ lives, and whether he also felt the allure of self-destruction. “They were damaged, alcoholic, self-destructive and absolutely uncompromising when it came to art. As a young man, I admired these qualities.”

REVIEWING THE COMPLETE POEMS OF PHILIP LARKIN for the American literary magazine the Threepenny Review, the English poet and critic James Fenton suggests how to read Larkin for the first time: you read his individual volumes, in reverse order of publication. I thought of this when I started Thayil’s Collected Poems. It’s arranged in the way Fenton would have approved of.

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Palash Krishna Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park and The Butterfly Generation. He is also the editor of two anthologies, Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays, and, most recently, House Spirit: Drinking in India.

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