‘Throughout the novel there are sightings of the migrant, as ancient a figure as any’: Jeet Thayil

‘Throughout the novel there are sightings of the migrant, as ancient a figure as any’: Jeet Thayil

This is a big departure from the Bombay trilogy, although there have always been biblical references in your work. Why did you choose to go in this direction and why now?
It’s only an apparent departure. In fact, Names of the Women continues the larger project of the Bombay trilogy, which is to give the marginalised a place in the centre, where they belong. I think it’s fair to say that this is the narrative element that interests me more than any other.

To call it a retelling of a Bible is somewhat of a disservice to the scope of the novel. There is a fair amount of craft involved for example in creating the characters of Acquila and Junia from mere mentions. Can you take us through the process involved in the creation of this book considering how little there is by way of “historical” information available?
For me the engine of the novel is the tone of voice, the rhythm of the sentences, the high register and particular diction we associate with the Bible. While writing, I reread the Gospels and made a note of the female characters, how often or how rarely they appeared, what they did, who they were. I was astonished to discover that although some of the crucial moments in the narrative involve women, they are rarely named or given any kind of spiritual consideration. I tried to immerse myself in their stories as an imaginative retrieval or excavation.

While the overall feminist tone of the novel is obvious and consistent, there are other oppressed voices emerging throughout (themes of class divide and identity politics keep recurring). You seem to have set out to have the marginalia reclaim the narrative, especially in a time like this where identity politics is still rampant.
For me this was the point. Throughout the novel there are sightings of the migrant, which is as ancient a figure as any, a point we seem to have forgotten in this forlorn identity-driven moment. It may serve to remind Christian fundamentalists in the west that Christ was born to a migrant couple, in the foreign town of Bethlehem, because his family was forced to flee their hometown following an imperial edict. An elderly working-class man, his pregnant wife, and unborn child, on the road for what turned out to be years, braving the hostility of strangers. This image should have special resonance for us, who saw so many migrant families displaced by our own government’s imperial edict that forced us into last year’s disastrous lockdown.

The novel succeeds in subverting the male gaze but at the same time, all the women are realistic and believable, and have a humanising quality about them. The narrator tells their stories without idolising them or making them seem unrealistically heroic.
That’s the only way you can make a character believable, by making them as ordinary as the people you know and have always known. By ordinary I don’t mean unremarkable. As we know, the ordinary is always remarkable. In the same way that the women of the Bible are not idealised or idolised, neither is the figure of Christ. He is human, susceptible to rage and pain and doubt. I tried also to make a connection between Jesus and the idea of fame. Fame can turn you away from the familiar and the people you know. Bob Dylan, for example, went to great lengths to hide his ethnicity and class. There are artists who like to obscure their origins, the early life shrouded in mystery, as if they arrived in the world fully formed, already messiahs. And it has to be said: it is almost always male artists who do this.

Your previous works are informed by a lived experience. What space does this novel hold for you personally?
My grandmother could recite the Syrian Christian service by heart. She was the only one in the family who knew the entire hour-and-a-half-long service. In the Orthodox Church, only the priests were allowed to own it. They were always male, and it was their way of control, of preserving their status and extracting material goods in the form of gifts from parishioners. My grandmother’s recital of the service in that society was outrageous: a way of taking power back from the custodians. If she’d seen this book, I think she would have been happy, though her happiness was always tempered by gloom. Chachiamma had a tragic understanding of life. The definition of tragedy is: everybody dies. Her gloom had to do with the hard life she lived. She bore eight children and two of them died young.

What are you currently working on? What else can readers look forward to?
I’m working on a novel with the working title of The Migrants, which plays with the idea of fiction, non-fiction, and autobiography. I’m using letters, old and new photos, fragments, maps, and, in one section, the notebooks my father kept of his trips to North Vietnam in 1973. He was the first Indian journalist allowed in, and his notes are detailed and atmospheric, a novelist’s notes rather than a journalist’s, material he never used.

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