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Jeet Thayil: 'I have a liver condition, I'm reckless and I'm very aware that time is limited'

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The former addict whose novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize on the western whitewashing of saints and the diagnosis that forced him to write

Jeet Thayil is everywhere at the Jaipur literary festival. The poet, novelist and former drug addict moves between panels on the future of the novel, moderating sessions with poets and a spoken word gig. He also finds time to talk about his new novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, which, he says, “reclaims for the east the historical figures that had been whitewashed by the west, from Jesus Christ to Saint Augustine”. In person, the 58-year-old is softly spoken, polite and extremely self-contained. At several points during our time together, there are long pauses. In those moments, he cries.

Thayil’s work draws deeply on life experiences from which many would not recover. His years as a drug addict in Mumbai and New York were poured into his 2012 debut Narcopolis, an experimental novel set in the Indian city’s opium dens, which began with a bravura six and a half page opening sentence. Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, won that year by Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, and went on to win the DSC prize for South Asian literature in 2013, making Thayil the first Indian writer to take home the $50,000 (£35,842) award.

So many of the saints we think of as white were not. They were swarthy, dark skinned, black haired, unwashed

A younger me would have despised this person who has written a couple of novels and is promoting them at a festival

Related: Jeet Thayil becomes first Indian winner of South Asian literature prize

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