Born in Kerala, Thayil is the son of the author and editor TJS George, who at various times in his life was posted in several places in India, in Hong Kong and New York. Thayil was mostly educated abroad. He received a Masters in Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College (New York), and is the recipient of grants and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Swiss Arts Council, the British Council and the Rockefeller Foundation.
His first novel, Narcopolis (Faber, 2011) is set mostly in Bombay in the 70s and 80s, and sets out to tell the city's secret history, when opium gave way to new cheap heroin. Thayil has said he wrote the novel, "to create a kind of memorial, to inscribe certain names in stone. As one of the characters [in Narcopolis] says, it is only by repeating the names of the dead that we honour them. I wanted to honour the people I knew in the opium dens, the marginalised, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low; and I wanted to make some record of a world that no longer exists, except within the pages of a book."
He is the editor of the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (Bloodaxe, UK, 2008), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin India, 2008) and a collection of essays, Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora (Routledge, 2006). Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry ( United States, 2015 ).
He is the author of the libretto for the opera Babur in London, commissioned by the UK-based Opera Group with music by the Zürich-based British composer Edward Rushton. The world premiere of Babur takes place in Switzerland in 2012, followed by tours to the United Kingdom (where it shows at theatres in London and Oxford) and India. At the work's core is an exploration about the complexities of faith and multiculturalism in modern-day Britain. Its action hinges on an imagined encounter between a group of religious fundamentalists and the ghost of Babur, who challenges their plans for a suicide strike.
Thayil is also known as a performance poet and musician. As a songwriter and guitarist, he is one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil (Mumbai, New Delhi).
Thayil was also a guitarist for the psychedelic rock band Atomic Forest in the early 1980s for a brief period.
In 2006 he told the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, that he had been an alcoholic (like many of the Bombay poets) and an addict for almost two decades: "I spent most of that time sitting in bars, getting very drunk, talking about writers and writing. And never writing. It was a colossal waste. I feel very fortunate that I got a second chance." These days, he says, the only addictions he has are poetry and coffee. "Coffee's much easier to get than heroin."
He has worked as a journalist in New York, Mumbai and Bangalore.
In 2012, Thayil's poetry collection These Errors are Correct was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for English. He was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and The Hindu Literary Prize (2013) for his debut novel Narcopolis. In 2013, Jeet Thayil became the first Indian author to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, worth $50,000, for the novel Narcopolis.
Thayil has been writing poetry since his adolescence, paying careful attention to form.
In his prose, as in his poetry, he has introduced new areas of feelings and emotions to Indian literature, and has often concerned himself with the pleasures and pains of drugs and alcohol, sex and death – emblematic of Keats and Baudelaire. He is said to have more in common with figures such as William S. Burroughs and Roberto Bolaño than writers traditionally connected with the firmament of Indian literature.
The Indian poet, Dom Moraes, in his introduction to Thayil's first book of poems (with poet Vijay Nambisan), Gemini, said that Thayil did not trouble his mind with the concerns of many Indian poets, their Indianness, that he did not make statements that were irrelevant to his work, that his concerns were mainly personal. Thayil, Moraes said, "works his feelings out with care, through colourations of mood rather than through explicit statements."
His idiom is the result of a cosmopolitan blend of styles, and is yet, quite clearly, his own. About Narcopolis, Thayil said, "I've always been suspicious of the novel that paints India in soft focus, a place of loved children and loving elders, of monsoons and mangoes and spices. To equal Bombay as a subject you would have to go much further than the merely nostalgic will allow. The grotesque may be a more accurate means of carrying out such an enterprise."