A vanishing world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One afternoon The Delhi Walla visited the home of Jeet Thayil, the poet and novelist in his 50s, who lives with his partner, designer and photographer Akanksha Sharma, and cat, Marjorie Stuart Baxter, in their first-floor apartment in South Delhi’s Safdarjung Development Area (SDA). Their living room looks quite bare. Slouching down on a corner sofa, the poet-novelist says, “I had about 2,000 books but I’m beginning to develop papyrophobia.”
Mr Thayil helpfully adds that he is referring to his fear of paper, which might be the reason behind his recent generosity—he has given away many of his books to friends. He also tried to give away some really bad ones to “enemies”. Alas, the famous writer’s enemies also have discerning literary taste so not all books were accepted. He was forced to leave a pile of rejected books at Chaayos, the tea parlour in a nearby market.
The books that do stay in the apartment are those that the author will not lend to people, not even those dear to him.
Mr Thayil’s writing room—stocked with a collection of poetry books by American, British and European poets—is a shrine to verse. “When I write, I only want poetry in the room because I hope it will make me a better writer,” he says. There sits a slim Penguin Classics edition of Anna Akhmatova’s Selected Poems. The haunting cover shows her black and white photograph as a young woman—the tragic poet of Russia is seen wearing a hat. Another eye-catcher is the beautifully designed Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-85. There are also biographies and correspondences. Curiously, two books on Ayurveda remedies lies atop the poetry volumes. Picking up the hardbound of Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell: A Biography, Mr Thayil says, “He was a great biographer.”
Mr Thayil’s dark brown bookracks deserve a mention. Heavy and dignified, they seem fit enough only for Homer and Kalidasa. They have come from cities “all over”—Bombay, Bangalore and New York—where he has lived. He says that his most beautiful shelves were, however, acquired from a famous furniture market in South Delhi’s Amar Colony. He is particularly fond of the one in the living room. It holds an old hardbound edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. The book is placed at the top of the rack. Mr Thayil flips through the thick volume, stopping to examine the Neem tree leaves lying pressed between the poems ‘Last Night in Calcutta’ and ‘Patna-Benares Express’. Is he a devotee of Ginsberg?
Mr Thayil looks hurt and says that he feels close to about 20 poets. Ginsberg would probably be number 17 on that list.
Two of the shelves in the living room are devoted to Indian poets and almost every book, except Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Collected Poems: 1969-2014, is a collector’s item. They all are out of print, including Mr Thayil’s own debut book, Gemini, published by Penguin Viking in 1992. In it were Mr Thayil’s poems as well as poetry by Vijay Nambisan; poet Dom Moraes wrote the introduction.
On the same rack is Mr Thayil’s Sahitya Akademi trophy. He won the prestigious award in 2012 for his poetry collection These Errors Are Correct. In the same year his first novel, Narcopolis, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
The bedside bookracks in Mr Thayil’s bedroom are less poetic. There is a bikini-clad woman on the cover of Lolita. The notorious novel by Vladimir Nabokov shares space with other Russian authors at the bottom shelf of a rack, which is dedicated to novels alone. The shelf above that is European, mostly French. Then comes the shelf containing crime and thrillers. The next shelf above that is home to Beat writers and “fellow travelers who cannot be termed as Beats.” Modern American writers are at the top.
Mr Thayil is at work on his new novel these days. His library waits patiently to receive its copy.
A poet’s collection
1a. (Jeet Thayil with a rare copy of his first book, Gemini)