“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?”
The poet and professor, Rama Roer, asks this question in the beginning of The Book of Chocolate Saints. Jeet Thayil seems to answer him with this five-hundred-page humongous novel that depicts the cultural history of Mumbai. Let not the length put you off from picking it up. Thayil’s beautiful prose coupled with the protagonist artist-poet Xavier’s eccentric life will keep you turning the pages smoothly. The book is narrated in a variety of voices and styles that all blend seamlessly to give us terrifying insights into love, poetry, sex, madness, suicide, religion, God, and the futility of it all.
There is hardly a line between fact and fiction in The Book of Chocolate Saints. If you are like me and have no idea about the poets mentioned in the novel or couldn’t recognize that Dismas Bambai is actually Jeet Thayil himself or that the fictional character Newton Francis Xavier more than fleetingly resembles a Goan artist with nearly the same name, even if you are unable to decipher all this, you will still enjoy the book as it takes you on a romp from India to America and across time periods. We meet journalists, murderers, conmen, whores, professors, teachers, artists, alcoholics, addicts, Edgar Allan Poe’s great-grandson and the many wives and mistresses of Xavier, the genius who is a blocked poet and India’s greatest living painter.
“After all, what is digression but the story entire? Every story is a digression from some other, it is in the digression that meaning resides,” writes Thayil. This is true of The Book of Chocolate Saints. The book hops between characters, incidents and stories but the aggregation of the digressions seem to add depth to the totality.
One such digression is Amrik. I couldn’t stop myself to even bat an eyelid while I read the scene where Amrik, a Sikh, must decide whether to cut off his beard and long hair or not. I could empathise with Amrik, I felt his confusion, I followed him from New York to Mesa, I ran with him along the streets as he scooted away from the hooligans. If I were to choose a single scene that made me fall in love with Thayil’s writing, it must be this one.
My only grouse with the book is the absence of any well-developed female characters. Woman have only been treated as sexual accessories all through the book. With the recent spate of #MeToo confessions, I couldn’t understand what was more sickening in the book—the genius protagonist who serially seduces young women or the young women who enjoy being seduced by him. After all, it is apparent that the book is a balm to the male artist ego.
What is disappointing in a book of this length and scope is the absence of even a single women poet among its pages. The book speaks about the great men poets, their degradations, their addictions, their creations and their death. The Book of Chocolate Saints is a narcissistic, misogynistic depiction of history that makes one wonder about the status and importance given to women poets in those years, if at all they had a chance to create and survive in such a male-dominated society.
With the high-end book launches for poetry books, open mic sessions, glitter, glamour, Instagram poems and YouTube channels that are prevalent today, it is hard to imagine the life of poverty and degradation that the poets of seventies and eighties underwent. The Book of Chocolate Saints is a fitting tribute to those poets and artists, who had no support than that they afforded each other.
“The writers of today are as conservative as novelists or bankers. Terminable affability. Addiction to approval. What will Auntie think? What will the neighbours think? This is the neurosis of the middle-class Indian. But for a moment there we cared less about the relatives and the neighbours. We were devotees of anarchy and marijuana…Why has no one made a movie about that time, or a play, or a book? We live in that moment. We have no talent for history and we are unable to adapt to modernity. This is the true reason. And I’ll tell you one last thing. If a nation does not care for its past it does not care for its future; and if it does not care for its poets it does not care for anything at all.”
The Book of Chocolate Saints will creep up your spine, push you into despair and make sure that you care.
Author(s): Jeet Thayil
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Release: November 2017
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