Review: The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil
Jeet Thayil emerged from a specific moment in the Indian English poetry scene. In his second novel The Book of Chocolate Saints, one of his characters reminds the reader of that: “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?”
Chocolate Saints is thinly veiled fiction. It barely hides that the author borrows everything in its pages from his life and from the lives of those he hung around with in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a book about India’s cultural history, and in that sense, it is a good one.
It is also a novel about male poets written by a male poet, and the reaction it elicits will probably depend on the gender of the reader.
There is no faulting Thayil’s style, his particular penchant for sentences longer than Gigi Hadid’s legs, or his imitation of the voices of yesteryear poets, including, possibly, himself. The previous sentence is a bow to the author’s ability to seamlessly write 1000 facts into one para-tence (paragraph + sentence.)
The Chocolate Saints presents itself as a work of fiction. But for those who are familiar with Thayil and the Indian English poetry scene in those decades, it’s difficult not to recognize nearly every character as a real person or escape the novel’s use of inter-textuality. It doesn’t try and hide cheeky references either. In the first chapter, Reggie Ashton talks about Newton’s favourite haunt The York Minster, also known as the French. I remember the French House from my days in university. It still sits in Soho, London, and was previously known as the York Minster.
The many voices and narratives in the book are skillfully stitched together. But I remember poet Dom Moraes, who died in 2004, and there definitely is a resemblance between his life and that of Thayil’s protagonist Newton Francis Xavier.
It is also tempting to say that Francis Newton Souza, a Goan artist who died in 2002, has inspired part of Newton, the fictional character. The similarity between the fictional Newton’s muse Goody and Souza’s partner Srimati Lal, an artist from Kolkata, supports this theory. Of course, more obviously, the protagonist Dismas Bambai, meets the these two in New York. Bambai is a heroin-abusing journalist who works for a publication called Indian Angle. Thayil met Souza, the Goan artist, in New York around the same period when he was working for India Abroad. We know from his first novel that Thayil, at that time, was also a heroin user.
Goody, Newton’s muse, is an unbearably flat character — especially for an author who writes round, full-bodied male characters so, so very well. It’d be interesting to know Lal’s reaction to this book, mainly because she was and continues to be a fascinating woman. In real life, like Goody, Lal is an artist and curator. The real life version of Goody has had over 20 international exhibitions of her work. The fictional version of Goody is barely relevant to most of the novel’s major events and plot turns. Still, the book ends, in a manner of speaking, with her.
It is at this point that the male and female gaze may differ when laid upon The Book of Chocolate Saints. If you’re a woman exhausted from reading about over-inflated egos and the accompanying misogyny of male artists, this is not a book for you. Or perhaps it is. One everyday dichotomy of being a female creative is the ability to love the efforts of men who have very little admiration for women. From Bukowski to Naipaul, Thayil is in good company. Women consistently read the works of misogynists. We expend energy to admire their handiwork, even as we dislike their apparent antipathy towards our gender.
There is an argument to be made that writing is separated from the writer. Another way to look at Chocolate Saints is that Thayil has captured the prevailing misogyny of the era or that of male poets. These are both truths. But how much of the author drips from every word in the book, and in anything he has ever written? Right from his first publication of poems in 1992 to his first award-winning novel Nacropolis, Thayil, the writer, is a muse for himself and often seems disdainful of the line between fiction and fact. In this, his second novel, Thayil casts aside all lines of control between the two.
But the reader cannot help but wonder: were there no women poets in that era? Did they not exist at all? Or did they never emerge from their homes? They make barely any appearances in these pages, among these Chocolate Saints.
Then there’s the narcissism evident in the book’s many monologues. They will inspire some but could be tiresome for others. I include myself in the latter category.
Take this scene - in Gokul, Bombay’s favourite dingy bar, a journalist tells Bambai: “If you’re planning a revolution or founding a new religion go to the poets. Don’t waste your time with fucking scriveners. Go to the source, the bards. At least you can count on them to be true to their essential nature. And what is this nature? Ruthlessness, I say! Enlist the poets and expect blood.”
You know who does not make these presumptuous statements about poetry?
Female writers, poets, authors.
They, mostly, don’t consider themselves revolutionaries because they are aware of the importance of the written word and also of how easily it can be ignored or forgotten. They know these sad truths because they live them — ignored more often than celebrated; hit on by male editors more often than published.
Towards the end of the book, a former professor of English Literature tells Bambai of a publisher who knew no Indian poets writing in English: “I thanked the man who dismissed my history and my milieu with a single sentence.” This reviewer feels the same way about male authors who appear to find it impossible to look beyond their own selves.
This is a book about India’s cultural history. Its importance, in that sense, overshadows how casually it overlooks the women who could have added and aided the story. Thayil has never allowed his readers to forget the forgotten: the poets of an earlier era. Sometimes, he appears to forget that some of those contributors to our lithographic history were women. But we’re used to that. As I said, he’s in good company. The Book of Chocolate Saints is a moving, amusing, and superbly written book that celebrates a part of our country’s past that might otherwise be forgotten.
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