Jeet Thayil on why 'Where are you from?' is a complicated question for all of us

First aired on North by Northwest (13/07/13)


Jeet Thayil isn't easy to pigeonhole. He has lived in India, the United States and Hong Kong, and is a musician, poet and novelist. His first book, Narcopolis, which takes readers into the drug dens of Bombay in the 1970s, won the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Thayil was recently in Vancouver to take part in the city's Indian Summer Festival, and he dropped by NXNW to talk about his novel, and the notion of cultural hybridity.

People are often asked "Where are you from?" but for Thayil, it's not a simple question. "I never know how to answer that question, because I was born in the south of India but I've never lived there. I went to school in Bombay, and in Hong Kong and in New York," he told guest host Margaret Gallagher. "But the place I've lived in the most is Bombay, because I've been there at various stages of my life."


Thayil believes it's actually a complicated question for most of us. "Even if you're from one place, and you've lived there your whole life, for instance, Vancouver, in one street, even, that street and the surrounding streets have changed so quickly around you that you're no longer from that one place."

People still persist in asking someone where they're from because "it's a way of getting a handle on you." But to Thayil, "the handle that it does give you to a person is a false handle. It's a false label. But I suppose it's easy in some ways. I'm so-and-so and I'm from wherever."

Thayil says he identifies culturally as Indian, "because that's where I live, and have lived for a few years now." But in some ways, he's not so easy to pin down. "I wouldn't say in food tastes, for instance, that I'm Indian. I would say I'm Chinese, food-wise. That's the food that I like to eat on a daily basis." It's common for people to be a mix of cultures, rather than having one specific identity, he pointed out.

Narcopolis is filled with a variety of characters from different cultures, and reflects the reality of Bombay in the late 1970s and '80s. "It had people from all over the country and the world. The great thing about Bombay as a city was it was a magnet for anybody with talent, or ambition or hunger, or beauty, or intelligence," Thayil said. "If you had any of these things and you wanted to make something of yourself, you went to Bombay and the city would reward you. I think all of that changed in 1992, when the last big riots happened in Bombay between Hindus and Muslims. Now when I go back to the city and I look at it, I can see the kind of profound impact that those riots had, and how it's changed the character of the city, and in such a profound way that I don't think it will ever change back to what it was before '92."

Thayil acknowledges that change is inevitable, but the nature of that change is what concerns him. "It would be nice if things changed in the sense that they became more cosmopolitan, more inclusive, wider rather than narrower, with a kind of a view towards the future and a view towards many different kinds of people and people from different cultures living together," he said. "Because that's what a city really is about...That's the beauty of a great city. And the sad thing is, there was a time when you thought Bombay had it."

In today's world, there's widespread emigration and intermarriage. When asked about the impact these factors have on ideas about cultural identity, Thayil said that he enjoys visiting London, England, because it's changed so much since 25 years ago, when he was first there. "I could feel my colour. I could feel the way people looked at you, and the way they talked to you," he said. Now, though, because of the mixing of cultures, it seems to him "like some kind of brilliant social experiment...In some ways it seems to me the city of the future."

People may lose their sense of belonging to one specific cultural heritage, Thayil acknowledged. But he believes that there's a positive side to the intermingling of cultures. "You may lose something, but you gain a double perspective, a double vision. Especially in terms of writing, or in terms of art, I think it's tremendously useful."

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