Poets in their time
Jeet Thayil's 'The Book Of Chocolate Saints' is certain to be recognized as a landmark novel, one among just a handful
raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped by ten
steps of the roaring ladder, and then
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.
—Robert Lowell, Waking Early Sunday Morning
Science and the arts are the two great creative pursuits of humankind, but scientists seldom dominate public imagination the way artists do. Science is its own story and the memorialization of the lives of scientists is not a critical contributor to the epistemology of science. Art is born more directly of the human condition, common to us all. Artists build on as well as reinvent the tradition they are engaged with. They belong to a specific place and period in history. Since the process of artistic creation is essentially mysterious, and since the world is, at all times, arranged to thwart and destroy all deviant pursuits, especially art, an artist’s life story can be a source of valuable knowledge and creative inspiration.
However, most such life stories are biographies, reconstructed in excruciating detail from available documentation, interviews and correspondence. Fictionalized biographies of well-known artists (Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, et al) have been enduringly popular but they also fail to place the individual artist’s story in the wider context. But artists in our times are often susceptible to vulnerability and defeat, and the story of such lives can only be told through literary fiction. Humboldt’s Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow, an imaginative retelling of the novelist’s friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, is a famous example.
The Book Of Chocolate Saints, Jeet Thayil’s second novel, pushes the envelope in several directions. The novel’s main thread is the life story of a poet-painter called Newton Francis Xavier, who is a tenuous composite of poet Dom Moraes (1938-2004) and painter F.N. Souza (1924-2002), both native sons of Goa. Moraes won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for poetry when he was only 19 and wrote My Son’s Father, acknowledged as a masterly autobiography, at age 23. Despite his considerable gifts and early achievement, Moraes was not very productive as a poet and writer in his mature years. After a successful career in India as an important avant-garde painter and founder of the Progressive Artists Group, Souza moved to New York City in 1967, returning to India shortly before his death. Dismas Bambai, a younger poet, is the foil to Xavier in the novel. Dismas is writing a book on the “Bombay poets", a group of (mostly) Indian English poets who emerged in the 1960s, and on their milieu.
A multilayered work, designed, constructed and rendered with astounding skill and craft, The Book Of Chocolate Saints is divided into seven books. The first, third and fifth books are in the form of interviews conducted by Dismas with people from Xavier’s life as well as poets, critics and impresarios associated with the Bombay poets. The second book unfolds in post 9/11 New York City. The fourth book is set in Bangalore, the sixth in Delhi and the seventh and final in the badlands of Gurgaon, where Xavier meets his end. Apart from Beryl, Xavier’s neurotic mother, there are three women featured in the narrative: Lula, Xavier’s actress-wife, whom he leaves for someone much younger; Goody Lol, an artist and gender studies graduate who stays with him till the end; and Dharini, a 23-year-old from Bangalore that Xavier hooks up with. The story is told in many voices, all belonging to people who seem to be adrift in the world. Except for the child Xavier, who draws an inappropriate sketch of his mentally unstable mother and is in turn attacked by her, there are no children in the book, unless we count those four-year-old child beggars who rap on car windows at traffic signals in Delhi and Bangalore.
The sprawling and capacious novel contains so much within that to assume a unitary wholeness for it would be to diminish its substance and achievement. It offers an intense and vivid experience of all the events and people it describes. The reader can pause almost anywhere and engage with one among a staggering range of reflections and observations. For instance, “there are at least five ways to experience the ocean without demanding to know its meaning". You can touch it, taste it or listen to its music. You can also look at the shape it takes and try to map its abundant architecture. “The fifth is inconvertible and extreme. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem and there’s no need to go into it now." The author’s voice, which underlies all other voices in the book, remains uncompromising and true to its vision from beginning to end. The portrayal of locations in the book—from Goa, Bombay and New York City to Bangalore and Delhi—is unflinchingly honest and dystopian. The country itself brings on a sense of gloom that can ambush you at any moment, even when you’re on a moving train:
“At a crossing he saw a dog with red eyes and a terrible wound on its back. It was a common sight, unremarkable in every way: maimed animals and humans in every small town and city. A subcontinent of the maimed and soon-to-be-maimed, where if you got to the age of sixty or fifty without encountering horror you were unaccountably lucky."
But two threads running through its pages can be traced without effort. The first is the difficult evolution of the gifted Xavier as poet and artist, and what seems like a journey through several unfriendly locations towards death. Combined with the recital of a very long list of “chocolate saints", writers and artists who have taken their own lives or arranged to die through abuse of alcohol and/or drugs, Xavier’s life seems to be telling us that in this world as it exists, the savage god is already among us; that either the artist or the art is destined to die. It is certainly something the world needs to worry about, along with the calamitous changes to the climate system already wrought by its material pursuits.
The second thread is the memorialization of the first generation of the Bombay poets. Through multiple voices, the book describes a whole community of disparate individuals, united by poetry, coping with the challenges of writing in a marginal language and trying to find a space for it. The milieu is portrayed in all its complexity: the attempt to make an impact with the Hung Realists anthology, the engagement with the great issues of the time (including caste), the fragility of alliances with other poets both within the country and abroad, and, finally, the tragedy of several gifted poets falling silent for decades. Having edited two important anthologies of Indian English poetry over the last decade, Thayil has portrayed the community’s predicament at a particular historical juncture with conviction and finesse. Thayil is something of a descendant of the Bombay poets himself, having published four collections of his poetry: Gemini (with Vijay Nambisan, 1992), Apocalypso (1997), English (2004) and These Errors Are Correct (2008). After the last, for which he won a Sahitya Akademi award, Thayil switched to writing fiction, making his debut with Narcopolis, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2012. He has published no poetry since.
Given its ambitious scope and acuteness of vision, as well as the brilliant writing on every page, The Book Of Chocolate Saints is certain to be recognized as a landmark IWE (Indian Writing in English) novel, one among just a handful. What this may mean in terms of future directions for literary fiction from the subcontinent is anyone’s guess. But the past, as the book narrates it, remains gloomy and forbidding.
Rummaging through my papers last month, I came across the typescript of a tribute delivered by the late Vijay Nambisan for Dom Moraes not long after the latter’s death in 2004. Towards the end of his tribute, Nambisan writes:
“(Dom Moraes) wrote many beautiful poems and one of the classic autobiographies, and yet I cannot help thinking of what might have been. Strangely, though I never met him, I remember the marvellous boy of the London years, I remember him well, and I wish him well, because the future is still there to be grasped. That is how I shall always remember him."
The future is still there to be grasped! That’s not a sentiment you will find in The Book Of Chocolate Saints. We might well have moved on from there.