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Jeet Thayil, The Book of Chocolate Saints – TLS

01/06/2018

The Book of Chocolate Saints – Jeet Thayil’s second novel, following his successful debut, Narcopolis – begins with a poet on the verge of flight. Francis Xavier Newton is about to abandon his wife in Bombay. He is being drawn west again, a lure ever since his childhood in Goa, where he grew up precocious and taciturn, beguiled by Christian saints and English literature. The novel begins in medias res and circles around, coming at its subject from multiple angles – a polyphonous, polyglot approach that encourages the reader to question: “This is my take on the matter, of course. You don’t have to agree”. By this point in his life, Newton has already tried out bohemian enclaves in London, Paris and Milan. Now, with his new muse, Goody Lol, he’s running away to the corrupted place he calls “Amurka”. Like all poets, he’s both an outcast and an absconder, even from poetry itself. Having published when young two brilliant volumes of verse, the words have run dry, so he’s turned his hand to painting – which is easier to dash off, makes money (unlike the “poverty of poetry”), and slots him comfortably into New York’s art scene, with its pastiche and plagiarism, readily-available drugs and uninhibited women.

In New York, Newton encounters Dismas Bombai, a fellow émigré, who has happily swapped India’s caste marks for America’s brands, paying their exorbitant prices with wages from an expat newspaper, the Indian Angle. Bombai wangles an interview with Newton and goes on to become his friend, biographer, and betrayer. Both men witness the nasty racial turn of American politics (a phenomenon mirrored in India’s rising sectarianism) and the stories of men like Amrik, a Sikh attacked during 9/11 for wearing a turban, or Balbir Singh, murdered in Arizona, because to ignorant American eyes he looked like a Muslim terrorist. In The Book of Chocolate Saints, Amrik becomes Newton’s manager – just one of many indications that Thayil’s novel is, like the contemporary artworld, at home in its inauthenticity, mixing “real” people with fictional ones, who themselves are often predicated on the once-living. Newton, Thayil has said in interview, was patched together from the Indian poet, Dom Moraes, and the artist, Francis Newton Souza; Amrik Singh Bhopal shares his first two names, with Amrik Singh Bal, a man who was the victim of a racist attack in California in 2015. That there is a parasitic element to all this, Thayil acknowledges with nods to Frankenstein and vampires, which contribute to the book’s larger debate about fiction’s dual tendency to cannibalise and conjure, and the air of disreputability associated with certain kinds of writing: the name Dismas, Thayil tells us, pointedly, means thief.

Sridhar/Thayil

Eventually Newton returns to India; Dismas, hot on his coattails. Here the opportunist biographer interviews academics, journalists, art activists and other poetry camp followers for an oral history of Newton and the Hungry Realists – a “real” group of poets who surfaced in Bombay in the 1970s. To call them a group, however, is perhaps to miss the point. Because in Thayil’s knowledgable anatomy of poetry (the poems preceding each of his novel’s chapters come from his own Collected Poems, 2015), the Hungry Realists are presented as a clique of infighters, brought together by their common sense of exclusion, but revelling in their obscurity: “They took pride in not publishing and not writing. One book and then nothing for a decade.” The talk about poetry, however, is prolific. For many, Auden’s question about what poetry can or cannot make happen, is urgent once again in this new “time of rage”. Then there are arguments about linguistic authenticity, and the (for some, deplorable) use of the coloniser’s tongue. There is India’s lingering sense of cultural inferiority, exacerbated when western poets like Ginsberg display “orientalist” responses to Indian poetry – praising Tagore’s Bengali mysticism while disdaining Newton’s English-language modernism. There are the clamours of the unacknowledged poets (the untouchables, the women) among this already-marginalised group; and, most insidious of all, there is the romance of the self-destructive poet: alienated, intoxicated, and suicidal, “the suicide saints” whom Thayil taxonomises from Anna Akhmatova to Reetika Vazirani, “a partial list because a complete list would be endless”.

And the Indian angle here? What’s novel is that these debates take place through the prism of Indian poetry. We are now the emblematic poets, Thayil is telling his readers, and our concerns (including post-colonial anxiety, linguistic diversity, and a greater global awareness) have become cardinal. Part of what Thayil’s novel is doing is attempting to rebalance the books: the Chocolate Saints are those that have been largely missing from the picture, whitewashed or ignored, and the profound sense of absence this creates chimes in his novel with the roll-calls of poetry’s lost and martyred. There are further allusions to women’s historical invisibility in the sharp portrait of Goody Lol, a woman seeking sexual liberation, who late in life (as is often the case for women artists) has her own exhibition of portrait photography exploring, quite literally, the ties that bind.

Among the most compelling aspects of Thayil’s ambitious, wide-ranging and utterly contemporary novel are its reflections upon poetry and fiction. As he demonstrates amply here, one of the novel’s strengths as a genre is its sociability, its being in and of the world: magpie, multiple, dependent. Whereas the ideal poem, he suggests, might be more like one of Arun Kolatkar’s, the Maharashtra poet, a poem of the people which “used the demotic” yet was still “a poem that did not care what you thought of it, an untouchable poem that didn’t seek you approval or understanding”. Perhaps a secular (novelistic) reading of poetry’s “holiness” – a word used by Eric Gill in the epigraph to The Book of Chocolate Saints – would suggest that what poetry has to teach the novel is its non-compliance with the times, its utter inadequcy as a thing to be bought.

 

 

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