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Poets in their time

N Kalyan Raman

The Book of Chocolate Saints, a novel by Jeet Thayil, Aleph Book Company, 2017

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 the human kind, but scientists seldom dominate the public imagination the way artists do. Science is its own story and the memorialisation 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 moment 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 as well as 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 (Van Gogh, 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 his 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 at once. The novel’s main thread is the life-story of a poet-painter called Francis Newton Xavier, who is a tenuous composite of poet Dom Moraes (1938-2004) and painter FN Souza (1924-2002), both native sons of Goa. Dom 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, Mr. 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 and returned 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 sixties, and their milieu.

A multilayered work that has been designed, constructed and rendered with astounding skill and craft. The Book of Chocolate Poetsis divided into seven books. The first, third and fifth books are in the form of interviews conducted by Dismas Mumbai with people from Xavier’s life as well as poets, critics and impresarios associated with the Bombay poets. The second book is set in post Nine-Eleven 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. There are three women: Lula, Xavier’s actress-wife whom he leaves for someone much younger, Goody Lol, artist and gender studied 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 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 it that to assume a unitary wholeness for it would be to diminish its substance and achievement. It offers a vivid experience of 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, is uncompromising and true to its vision. 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 gloom that can strike you from anywhere, even when you’re aboard 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 the 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 apocalyptic changes to the climate system already wrought by its material pursuits.

The second thread is the memorialisation 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.

As the editor of two important anthologies of Indian English poetry over the last decade, Thayil has portrayed this community’s predicament at a particular historical moment with conviction and finesse. Thayil is something of a descendant of the Bombay poets himself, having pubished 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 short-listed 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, The Book of Chocolate Saints is certain to be recognized as a landmark IWE novel, one among just a handful. What this may mean for future directions for literary fiction from the subcontinent is anyone’s guess. But the past still remains gloomy and forbidding.

Rummaging through my papers last month, I came across the typescript of a tribute delivered by Vijay Nambisan for Dom Moraes not long after the latter had passed away in 2004. Towards the end of his tribute, Vijay 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.

Review published in Mint Lounge on November 15, 2017


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