The Book of Chocolate Saints By Jeet Thayil
Aleph Book Company, 512 Pages, Rs 799
Midway through Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints occurs a remarkable passage that recites the names of poets, writers and artists who, driven by madness or grief or addiction, destroyed themselves “…Sylvia, classic head in the oven. Assia, acolyte of Sylvia, also by gas. Anne Sexton in furs, sipping a martini in the garage. John Berryman off a bridge into the frozen Mississippi, whose last lines were, I didn’t, and I didn’t sharpen the Spanish blade. Randall Jarrell’s dark overcoat stepping into night-time highway traffic. Lew Welch, disappeared into the wilderness. Hart Crane, disappeared into the sea. Weldon Kees, disappeared…” These are martyrs, says protagonist Newton Francis Xavier. “…nowhere does the Bible condemn self-murder. How could it when martyrdom was an early variant of suicide? And if suicide was a religious act then suicides were the unacknowledged saints of the universe.”
From the moment we encounter Xavier, called X or New by the people who know him, we suspect that this is to be his ultimate fate, to be one more name in this rosary. His destiny looks as clear and strong as the lines he draws as a boy, an expert draughtsman making pornographic sketches on walls, and there seems to be a poetic inevitability in his journey to perdition. After all, the artist as self-destructive madman is a much-loved fantasy, buttressed with gossip in book clubs and coffee houses, burnished with scholarship in biographies and peddled by cinema as the ultimate truth. And what’s wrong with that? Does anyone really want to read the life story of the well-adjusted, disciplined artist who is an upstanding member of the community and has no vices but for his tendency to go to bed at 9 pm?
The Book of Chocolate Saints is eminently enjoyable, and a surprisingly fast read for a book that is so densely packed with allusions, references to real-life personalities (or thinly-veiled fictionalised versions of them) and accurate, if brutal, observations about the nature of art, love, sex and obsession. It’s an ambitious, polyphonic novel that frequently veers into the territory of cultural history, with occasional excursions into meta-fiction. Xavier, our protagonist, is a composite of the painter FN Souza and poet and journalist Dom Moraes. He is Goan by birth, and like Souza, is an instinctive artist, and, as a boy, draws adroit portraits of everyone, except his mother. The correction of this omission, with all its tragic results, sets the ball rolling on Xavier’s story — his emergence as a gifted poet who, like Moraes, makes waves with his very first book and wins a prestigious poetry prize at 20, his struggles with alcoholism, writer’s block and depression, and his many disturbed relationships with women.
The treatment of women is, perhaps, the one troubling aspect of an otherwise great book. That Xavier should treat his women badly, using them to prop up his inflated ego and self-aggrandizing mythos, is not the problem. But when the author himself reduces his women characters to mere appendages of the main man or as convenient explanations for the developments in his life, what begins as a criticism of misogyny becomes perpetuation.
The biography of Xavier, conveyed to us via Dismas Bambai (a fictionalised version of the author) is merely the shell of the book. Early in the novel, a 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?” It becomes clear then, that this is Thayil’s main project, to memorialise a particularly fertile, revolutionary phase of poetry in India, which gave us poets like Arun Kolatkar, Vilas Sarang, Adil Jussawala and Dilip Chitre (the women poets working during this period, alas, do not get much of a mention, except for some throwaway references to Eunice de Souza and Imtiaz Dharker). This is a lineage from which Thayil himself is descended and which has been forgotten by all except those who work in obscure corners of academia and by those who themselves witnessed and participated in this ferment.