Master Class by Jeet Thayil, (Un)forgotten Poet
Posted on Feb 14, 2018In the middle of a week filled with dissecting the virtues of the comma and hyphens, we finally had our first master class. Before applying to the editing course at Seagull, I religiously read through all the blog posts by past students describing the many master classes conducted over the years. It was all so exciting! That was one of the many reasons that prompted me to apply and after my own master class experience, I am truly glad I did. And if I’d known I had to write this, I would’ve taken notes!
Jeet Thayil is not your usual run-of-the-mill author. Not only has he written two novels, he is also a well-known performance poet and an accomplished musician. His new book, The Book of Chocolate Saints, is a wonderfully rich novel about the forgotten poets of Bombay, which seems to be a point of contention for him. While reading up on him, I realized that Jeet is a fierce believer in bringing ‘undeservedly little-known literature’ to light, which I found very interesting. His new novel does exactly that—it blends fact with fiction and introduces the reader to a previously overlooked world.
The session itself was quite enlightening. Jeet was incredibly friendly and made an effort to answer all of our questions until he was ‘all talked out’ at the end. He spoke to us about his thought processes while writing, which was fascinating to hear. For instance, I would never have guessed it takes 15 drafts before he’s satisfied with a poem. He told us about how he carved out two whole novels from his initial draft of Narcopolis, his first novel. He apparently still has some of that original material left, which he unfortunately doesn’t plan on making into a new book.
Like all authors, Jeet is an ardent reader. He spoke passionately about his favorite poems, books and his least favourite word—discourse. Poetry, of course, holds a special place in his heart. There’s a chapter in Chocolate Saints titled ‘Of What Use Is a Poem That Cannot Pick Up a Gun?’, a line I simply cannot get out of my head. We discussed all aspects of poetry, and he gave us a few examples of great poems that he loves, including the nine-line poem by A. K. Ramanujan titled ‘Self-Portrait’. He knows that poems cannot always bring about tangible change in the world, but that doesn’t stop him from writing.
One interesting point raised was his relationship with his editor David Davidar, who helped shape Chocolate Saints into its current form. As an aspiring editor, this was invaluable insight into the process of enhancing the value of an already good book. He believes that a writer who refuses the advice of their editor is just plain stupid (his words!). Davidar’s suggestion of including more background on the novel’s main character led to Jeet introducing an ‘oral history’ section that derived its style from his 23 years of experience as a journalist. He was surprised by the fact that Davidar approved two controversial bits in Chocolate Saints, which he was sure was going to be cut or at least modified in some way, which I personally thought were the most interesting parts of the book. He also mentioned how lucky he was to find editors as crazy as he was. In fact, the prologue of Narcopolis is just one continuous sentence lasting almost six pages. A beautifully poetic sentence, but one which most editors would’ve rejected outright just for the sheer unconventionality of it.
Talking about designing his book covers, he told us about how no one noticed the mistake on the original hardcover edition of Narcopolis until after it was published—the designer had clearly never smoked a pipe before and the smoke was coming out of the wrong place!
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Jeet’s advice to all of us was simple: Read. A lot. He stressed on the importance of understanding the author’s themes and the style, which is something he hopes that all the reviewers in this country, regardless of tight deadlines, would do.
Although we missed the opportunity to see him perform his poems (I regret not asking), my consolation was he signed our books with the coolest signature ever.
My first master class was better than I’d imagined. Looking forward to the ones to come!