The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil: Review

Book Title: The Book of Chocolate Saints

Author: Jeet Thayil

Pages: 512 pages

Publisher: Aleph

Price: Rs 799

“I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no Melancholy.”

  • Charles Baudelaire

There have been times when I have bought books simply for having fallen in love with their beautiful covers. But the cover is only the most minor arresting feature of “The Book of Chocolate Saints”. Jeet Thayil writes so deeply personal and morose a book that only on being prepared to fit yourself suitably in his pair of (socks and) shoes, standing attentively at the station of life he was in while writing it will you find it touching. I cannot, and yet when I fashion out a façade for this book (other than the fantastic one that graces its book cover), it is unquestionably male, impossibly and narcissistically proud of his cultural lineage, self-aware to a fault about the genius he possess and the effect that has on everyone he meets, and thus coolly prepared to use it as currency to get what he wants from them while being at the mercy of substances that he ‘uses’.

Early in the book, a minor character laments, “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?” Well, now somebody has.

The author reminisces about this luminous slice of India’s cultural history and dresses it up as fiction and I suppose even builds on it, may be reinvents some bits. Alongside, he attempts to, as per the blurb, bring us “insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art.”  And maybe that’s why it is difficult to place the book in either the fictionalised biography shelf, or travelogue or history, because it simply does not belong. At its emotional core, it is a love letter to a long absent mentor/s, one that cannot be written, leave alone posted, when he is alive. And it is a love that accepts and values them for all that they are, “blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man and India’s greatest living painter,” as the most helpful blurb introduces the main protagonist. At other levels, the style refuses to be classified by taking on a different form every once in a while, showing major expertise in the craft of writing and constructing the book, without losing the plot (in spite of million digressions) or faltering in pace. Watch out for sentences that run into paragraphs that run into pages; if you can keep up there is perverse pleasure in that too.

The novel follows a remarkable poet and artist Newton Francis Xavier through his time in Goa to Bombay, then on to New York and back to India, and all the people he encounters. The personality graph is drawn vaguely from the characteristics of poet Dom Moreas and renowned painter F.N. Souza, who share their hometown with Xavier. Just like them, Xavier is noted for his genius, in this case as a poet, and becomes the toast of the town at an early age.

But the promise of this talent remains unfulfilled as the words stop flowing and he has to turn to painting to stay on the creative bandwagon. Having swapped Goa and Bombay for New York, bid mother Beryl and three ex-wives adieu and found a young “partner and muse” in future artist Goody Lol, he is visited by the other protagonist, a young heroin-using poet called Dismas Bambai who earns his keep as a journalist with the newspaper Indian Angle. He has written The Loathed, “a fictionalized memoir of the Bombay poets, part crime thriller and part gossip sheet” and wants to write a sequel called The Book of Chocolate Saints that would be “an oral biography of the painter and defunct poet Newton Francis Xavier.” The tome you hold in your hands is a composite of these volumes and much more, divided into seven chapters that are either transcripts of Dismas’s interviews with people who knew Xavier or accounts of Xavier’s stay in a New York after 9/11, or following his return to India for his ultimate show right up to the end.

The novel carries its cloak of literariness lightly. References to the Hungryalist and Beat movements are sprinkled around, even as Dismas takes you through a roll call of (Bombay) poets, authors, painters, philosophers, journalists, critics, and mystics, or their work, who have many a common thread running through their lives, namely the call of poetry, the need to write despite the lack of required space or patronage, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol to bring on a speedy tragic end to their voices. The Chocolate Saints. And Jeet includes himself in the list. Sample the humblebrag, “a poet whose name I can never remember, skeletal fellow, strung out or drunk, who put together an anthology some years later, The Bloodshot Book of Contemporary Poets, or something like that.”

The author has published four poetry collections and won a Sahitya Akademi award for the last one, and also edited two vital compilations of Indian poetry in English, one of them being The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Poets. His debut in prose with Narcopolis, the foundation for the second in many ways—primarily Xavier and his life in Bombay, featured in the Booker prize shortlist but sounded the death knell for his poetic fervor.

Given that he is an insider to the poetic/political scene whose tradition he is dedicating the book to, is it acceptable to ask 1) if there ever were any female voices worthy enough to be acknowledged or paid homage to? With only strong male voices resounding in the book, the lack smacks very sharply of a history we forgot or chose to. 2)This book will no doubt be hailed as a milestone in the quest for the Great Indian Novel but it makes me wonder, did the poetic ink have to dry up for the prose to shine? As summed up well by the writer himself, “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. In this story art is god.”

Not a happy thought to end on, is it? Especially when Charles Baudelaire cautioned us that “Always be a poet, even in prose.”

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