Book review

Fiction? Check. Cultural history? Check. Elegy? Check. Jeet Thayil’s new novel is utterly satisfying

‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’ is a passionate account of the Bombay Poets while also being a saga of death and revenge.

Just 50 pages into Jeet Thayil’s absorbing, determined The Book of Chocolate Saints, one of the recurring voices in the novel (part of which is depicted as a series of interviews), the poet and professor Rama Roer humblebrags, “Why has no one written about the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two, and vanished without a trace? It had never happened before, poets writing Marathi, Hindi, English, and combinations thereof, writing to and against each other, such ferment and not a word of documentation. Why not? The fiction has been done to death, features and interviews and critical studies and textbooks and not one of the novelists is worth a little finger of the poets. They were the great ones and they died. All of them died. If you want a moral, here it is: what god giveth he taketh away.”

That grouse obviously provides recurring motivation for Thayil, whose landmark Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008) was a pioneering effort to vindicate what he called “undeservedly little-known literature”. Now this winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry in English (for These Errors Are Correct in 2012) has taken his mission to another level altogether. The prismatic, compendious new novel is crammed with all the ingredients, characters and experiences that came together to create the landscape of modernist Indian poetry in English. Everyone is there, including multiple versions of Jeet himself (though only one is directly acknowledged, “skeletal fellow, strung out, or drunk, who put together an anthology some years later, The Bloodshot Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, or something like that)”.

Real, imagined, and both

In this way, the fictional world of The Book of Chocolate Saints regularly overlaps with straightforward cultural history, as barely disguised characters interact with real life names you can pick out from the shelves of any bookstore. However, the compelling central figures are appreciably more complicated. Newton Francis Xavier bears more than fleeting resemblance to the great Goan modernist artist, Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), but he’s actually markedly more like the (also Goan) superb poet Dom Moraes (1938-2004). Similarly, Goody Lol is only superficially similar to Srimati Lal, the daughter of publishing icon P Lal of the Calcutta-based Writers’ Workshop, who was Souza’s on-and-off companion in the last years of his life.

It’s tempting to see more unambiguous autobiography in Dismas Bambai, the heroin-using journalist who first encounters the other two in New York, where he works for a paper called Indian Angle (the heroin-using Thayil met Souza in New York while working at India Abroad), but in fact there is a great deal of Jeet in Xavier and Lol as well, plus his voice pouring out sharp commentary from every other available mouthpiece. For instance, flying the standard high for poets yet again, the journalist Subir Sonalkar tells Dismas Bambai (in the all-time classic old Bombay drinking den, Gokul Permit Room) “I tell you this, if you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood.”

The Book of Chocolate Saints is skilfully paced, telescoping in and out of the lives of Xavier, Lol, Bambai and others in a dizzying variety of settings and time periods, from pre-independence India to America in the twenty-first century. For the most part, the incessant gear-shifting works out, mainly because of the poet’s rare capacity to create precisely suited microclimates in just a few words. Thus, “Living in Goa, even with your onward tickets booked, you thought about futility.” Or, “He smelled chicken masala and fried fish and the indelible smell of methi and asafoetida, smells that had seeped into the walls from years of lunch and dinner heated in microwaves and eaten off newspapers on the desks. It was no microcosm of America.”

Some readers would have doubtlessly preferred that Thayil had slimmed this novel down, even wholly taken out some characters, such as Amrik, the American Sikh who nigh-inexplicably parachutes into the narrative at odd junctures. One clue to why he refrained from doing this might be in the preface to last year’s publication of his Collected Poems, which the critic and scholar Bruce King called “a classic of Indian prose”, and wrote that it “offers an impression of someone ageing rapidly and expecting to die.”

Certainly, it does read very much like a farewell note, promising that These Errors Are Correct “is the last full-length collection of poems I intend to publish. For various reasons, I am unable to equal the poems in that book and it seems to me that if you cannot equal or improve on your last book, it is better not to publish at all. I am fifty-five years old. Time, once a friend, is now the enemy. Each day is a gift that must be returned.”

Acknowledgement due

Anyone who has seen Thayil in recent years knows that he’s rudely alive and kicking, the exact opposite of decrepitude. But it is also true much of The Book of Chocolate Saints is preoccupied with death, remorse and revenge, and slyly expands the narrative in parts so that the author can get in all manner of last licks. “…the Bombay poets had a knack for cruelty. And if they didn’t they developed it pretty fucking fast. They were masters of the number two trades: petit bourgeois petty criminals, habitual drunkards and fornicators, lone wolfs and seers, desperados to a man, and they were all men except for the formidable Ms De Souza who had a kind of honorary status in the boy’s club. It was a club, no question about it, women not welcome, nobody welcome except the six or seven founder members who appointed themselves dictators for life and locked the door behind them.”

The last testament thematic usefully extends to making amends. Here, it is rather marvellous to see every single Indian poet of significance get a respectful shout-out in The Book of Chocolate Saints, most notably in an extraordinary catalogue that runs on for pages in the voice of yet another character, the Russian poet and editor, Philip Nikolayev. Everyone gets meticulously name-checked, from Srinivas Rayaprol and Gopal Honnalgere (“poets who had been forgotten by everyone except the odd scholar or barkeep to whom they owed money”) to “the future trouble-maker Bhalachandra Nemade”, and the usually overlooked exemplars from the North East, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Desmond Kharmawphlang and Robin Ngangom. This is Thayil’s direct and rather winning attempt to address his necessarily unpopular and controversial work as canon-maker. At least four of the poets named have previously bitterly complained to me about the author’s selection bias illustrated by his exclusion of them from his anthologies.

These digressions are necessary

In his outstanding review essay about Thayil’s Collected Poems, Palash Krishna Mehrotra writes that Dom Moraes said the younger poet “does not believe in leaving himself out, and this marks a departure from tradition. One trouble about much Indian poetry is that it is difficult to detect a personality behind the words, perhaps because in many cases the personality is hardly present to be detected.” This is conspicuously not the case with Thayil, whom Mehrotra met for the first time at the age of 16 in the bathroom of a Christmas party, where the author of The Book of Chocolate Saints was kissing “a tall, striking young woman” in the tub, and the two failed to rejoin the company all afternoon.

The sheer digressive expansiveness of The Book of Chocolate Saints is one main reason the novel is so utterly satisfying. On the one hand, it is definitely the passionate annals of Bombay poetry that Thayil always wanted to write. But it is also a moving and sensitive elegy for his friend and mentor, Dom Moraes, as well as the later acquaintance Souza. Not unrelated is the additional fact there is very little in Indian writing that has ever been quite so hair-raisingly visceral, relatable and moving about addiction and alcoholism. Then, amongst many other things, there is also the vividly rendered experience of being brown in New York in the defining moment of our age, during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre towers on 9/11/2001.

 “This is the way the future arrives, flying low and fast, on silver wings that set the sign of the cross flickering over the business district. On a day like any other, a day like no other. You are one of the hundreds, one of the thousands hurrying to your place of employment. Above you the tower warms its skin in the falling sun, its steel core braced, the tower and its parallel twin built a segment at a time to withstand history. So when the plane appears the mind perceives it first as art. There is no other way to understand the images that follow: the clear blue sky, the clean line of flight, the way the plane tilts in the final seconds, the inevitability of impact. Later he will mark it as a premonition, the starting bell of the twenty-first century. And he will talk about eyewitnessing two kinds of terror, Islamic and white American.”

The poet’s redemption

Thayil is arguably the last of the meaningful bridge figures in Indian letters (Vijay Nambisan, his one-time inseparable friend, who also qualified, died earlier this year). This simply means he is sufficiently old, and, crucially, was intemperate enough, to participate full-bore in the Bombay Poets scene of the 1980s (he became friends with Moraes at 26). Those were days of struggle and self-loathing, a distant universe far removed from today’s age of splashy poetry book launches by major publishers, and celebrity status at literature festivals.

No one who was there would sanely hanker to return to that desperate, unhappy past world, where artists were treated like dirt. But it’s also inescapable that something truly precious has been irrevocably lost. Thus, for us, and for Indian literature itself, The Book of Chocolate Saints is a noble and endearing exercise in redemption. In the novel’s final and most impressive third, we get to inhabit the fullness of Newton Francis Xavier as he falls off the wagon, grapples stubbornly with ageing, and slouches unwillingly towards his death. It is an immensely memorable and powerful portrait of the artist’s fiery end.

“You die. You get old and die. Your anger curled, your grief dries, your talent fades on the page. Your cells metastasize into an army dedicated to the overthrow of you. You become dependent on paid strangers for the maintenance of your blood and your brittle bones. You understand that thought is the enemy, the source of all lesions, tumours and sarcomas; then thought becomes flesh becomes the emblem of your shame.”

This is unquestionably brilliant and empathetic writing of the highest standard, as The Book of Chocolate Saints belongs in any short list of the finest literary contributions in recent years. What is more, it is a tour de force that goes a long way to make good for the entire milieu of Indian poets and artists who survived the rock bottom doldrums of the 1970s and 80s, when Moraes relied on quick-fix journalism to pay the bills, and Francis Newton Souza would gladly sell you a small masterpiece for less than a hundred dollars (and Thayil perforce kissed girls in bathrooms because other, more congenial, venues were unavailable).

There was no money, and little respect other than what they allowed each other, but these trailblazers still hewed out the foundations for Indian modernism, with an unerring diligence that is almost invisible in our twenty-first century corporate-sponsored culture.

“The writers of today are as conservative as novelists or bankers. Terminable affability. Addiction to approval. What will Auntie think? What will the neighbours think? This is the neurosis of the middle-class Indian. But for a moment there we cared less about the relatives and the neighbours. We were devotees of anarchy and marijuana…Why has no one made a movie about that time, or a play, or a book? We live in that moment. We have no talent for history and we are unable to adapt to modernity. This is the true reason. And I’ll tell you one last thing. If a nation does not care for its past it does not care for its future; and if it does not care for its poets it does not care for anything at all.”

The Book of Chocolate Saints, Jeet Thayil, Aleph Book Company.

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