Jeet Thayil: A Poet’s Fiction

Rohit Chawla
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Jeet Thayil’s new novel is inhabited by troubled storytellers. The novelist talks about his art and life in a conversation with Nandini Nair

The Book of Chocolate Saints | Jeet Thayil | Aleph | 501 pages | Rs 799

THE ARRIVAL OF Jeet Thayil’s new novel The Book of Chocolate Saints (Aleph; 501 pages; Rs 799) was heralded not by the usual melee of reviews and interviews. Instead, Jeet Thayil chose to interview Jeet Thayil in a national daily newspaper. Here was journalist spewing out serpentine questions so packed with jargon and art-speak that they were rendered meaningless. Here was an author, prone to long silences and abrupt disappearances, so uninterested in the exercise at hand that his answers were limited to ‘Not really’, ‘I’m not sure’ and ‘No’. The self-indulgence of the interview could be overlooked for its super snark and acuity. The farce rightly held up a mirror to so much of culture writing today—artists who only want to make work, but then must sell it; and reporters who disguise their ignorance with earnestness. Both the novel and the interview are versions of a roman à clef, they are fictions, where fact holds the key.

The Book of Chocolate Saints charts the whorls of art and addiction; poetry and politics; identity and sex. It explores the dynamics between hack and subject, male artist and muse, attraction and power. It is a novel where fact and fiction tango, they come together, melt into embrace, pull apart, but always remain in step with the other. The central character is a journalist Dismas Bambai who is working on two books. ‘The Loathed about the poets of Bombay in the eighties and nineties, centred around Nissim Ezekiel, Arun Kolatkar and Dom Moraes. The other would be an oral biography of the painter and defunct poet Newton Francis Xavier… It would be a biography like no other; he would make of his subject a window from which to view a broken society and a vanished literature.’ Newton Francis Xavier’s life and career echo the trajectories of poet Dom Moraes and the artist Francis Newton Souza. Through Xavier’s life, Thayil views a shattered society. Explaining the book within the book, Thayil says that the journalist is writing his book of Chocolate Saints, as an alternative history to all the time saints were depicted as White men with blond hair and blue eyes. “[Bambai] wants to reclaim the Chocolate Saints and make them chocolate, rather than white chocolate. Because so many of those saints were swarthy dark men with black hair, who were misrepresented historically because the record has come to us through the West.”

Thayil’s latest novel is a big book, at 500 pages, but also in terms of the canvas it spans and the many detours it escapes into. It unpacks gender and xenophobia—without framing it in those hackneyed terms or paradigms—by mapping them through lived experience. The sprawling cast of creative folks— from the ‘Progressive Autists Group’ to the ‘Hung Realists’ to scores upon scores of poets and artists mentioned by name (for example, Manjit Bawa, Manu and Madhvi Parekh, Vivan Sundaram, Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Dom Moraes, Namdeo Dhasal, Arvind Krisha Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote, etcetera etcetera)—risks disorienting readers. For an insider, privy to the machinations of these worlds, these names mean people and personas. A lay reader might feel slighted, doubly removed as she is from these cabals, both in person and now on the page. The numerous references and cross-references do privilege the elite insider, and risk alienating the everyman. To an arts and literature major, this novel might be like playing a game of Cluedo, as one tries to deduce who is who and what is what. This isn’t a simple read. This is a novel that will reap rich rewards only to the committed reader, willing to shift gear, refer back and forth and recalibrate with every new section.

A male artist will sacrifice anything to the god of their own genius

Even while Thayil claims that writing poetry is “the opposite of labour” and writing a novel is the “kind of labour that makes you old before your time”, this novel has a few breath-taking lines that could only have been written by a poet, whether it is the description of the moon ‘biding its time’ or the ‘tenseless’ nature of dreams. ‘They have no past or future. They don’t predict, they are.’ The diligence of the creator shines forth at the level of the sentence.

We meet at the 58-year-old author’s south Delhi home. It is a well-lived pad, which seems to be slowly emptying itself. I first saw Thayil at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2007. He was receptive to a cub reporter who wanted to speak to a poet. He even promised to put in a good word with Salman Rushdie for an interview. He was generous, without being patronising. We next met in March 2008, on the day he received the first copy of his book of poems These Errors Are Correct. He’d turned vegetarian, and seemed to have caved in and out after the death of his wife. He had then bemoaned the state of poetry in the country; no one buys it, few want to sell it, and the crazies continue to write it. Nearly a decade later, much has changed, Thayil is no longer the quintessential struggling and invisible bard. He doesn’t look close to implosion. Collared shirts have replaced t-shirts. The intensity of addiction and withdrawal has been replaced by the girth of age. As a Man Booker prize finalist (for Narcopolis, 2012) and winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, he now knows acclaim. Perhaps even fame.

Thayil is quick to counter these allegations of celebrity. “It depends on who you are comparing me with. I am well known in SDA (his leafy, quiet neighbourhood). Even that is not true… at one time I was well known at the Toddy Shop, in Hauz Khas Village (which used to host monthly poetry soirees, and has since shut down). I was the ‘Poet Laureate of Toddy Shop’… Gawd. How sad. What a thing to have on your tombstone,” he says with a quiet laugh.

Thayil sallies this self-deprecating humour into his novel as well. After all, what is the point of the arts if it carries no humour. With so much of art and the accompanying brouhaha, often the only befitting response is ‘Why so serious?’ In the literary and culture world, cockiness is often mistaken for talent and egotism for authority. Thayil will have none of that. In The Book of Chocolate Saints, he pokes holes in the façade of ‘genius’ and ‘master’, poet and artist. In Xavier we see a codger ‘casting about for something to take his mind off the daily grind of not drinking, not working, no longer being a Hung Realist or Progressive Austist.’ Thayil reveals a smidgen of pride at the coinage ‘Hung Realists’. He says, “That was an epiphanic moment. I also knew that by making that joke I’d make lots of people really angry. Especially a certain kind of Bengali poet. He is going to be pissed. But you need a sense of humour about things. Otherwise, what is the point?”

Thayil includes a description of himself in the novel, provided by a Delhi-based activist who describes ‘a poet whose name I can never remember, skeletal fellow, strung out or drunk, who put together an anthology The Bloodshot Book of Contemporary Indian Poets’. A translator attempts to understand India by ‘scrutinising the way it treated its dogs and poets.’ She says, ‘I like poets and I love dogs and I find it is a useful way to gauge the nature of society—by marking the way it treats its marginalised figures.’ After all, to be a poet in India is to resign to a terrible fate. Thayil agrees, “Poets are such a degraded species. They are forgiven bad behaviour, paranoia… all those things you’d never forgive in a novelist, you’d forgive in a poet.”

Writing poetry is the opposite of labour and writing a novel is the kind of labour that makes you old before your time

In many ways, The Book of Chocolate Saints is a tribute to the poet Dom Moraes (1938-2004), to whom the book is dedicated. Thayil calls him a “generous mentor” when “generosity is not a word you’d associate with the Bombay poets”. He says, “If he thought you were good, he’d go out of his way to help you. He could be bumbling and ineffectual. That was because he was a drinker. But he tried, in a way that none of the others ever did. Other than maybe Adil Jussawalla. The others were simply protecting their turf. I feel I owe Dom a lot.”

When speaking about Moraes, Thayil betrays all his affection and admiration for the senior poet. He first met him in the mid 70s, as a 15-year-old in New York, when Moraes and his father were colleagues at the UN. A “handful” at that time, he had no patience for friends of his parents. But the earliest memory that is branded into his memory is of a reading he attended years later. Moraes was in his forties, and ensnared in the worst of his drinking days. He looked ill and his “hand shook like a leaf”, when he went up to the podium. Thayil recalls, “There were maybe 20 people. A typical audience in Bombay for poetry. And then he started to read. Dom had a way of speaking, you had to really lean forward to hear him. But when he started to read, something happened. His voice emerged. It was absolutely clear and powerful… I felt I’d been touched by the extraordinary.”

The strongest parts of the novel are the oral history sections, where Thayil infiltrates his characters and speaks in their voice. The same sensitivity with which he recounts his early encounters with Moraes is transplanted on to the page when he writes of Nissim Ezekiel. One of the most moving sections is relayed by Zusi Krass, a writer and translator, who is interviewed by Bambai. Krass recounts that the ‘father of English poetry in India’ looked like a someone who slept on the streets of the city. In the last scene, Krass sees Ezekiel ‘surrounded by a group of beggar children who grabbed at the currency notes he was handing out, the very notes I had just given him. What struck me was the smile on his face. He looked so happy.” Speaking about the oral history sections, Thayil says, “I had the most fun with those parts. A lot of it is based on real people. It really is a question of the oldest novelistic technique of all, which is placing yourself in somebody else’s mind, in an act of empathy.”

In the male-packed world of poets and artists, the character that a reader is likely to feel empathy for is Goody Lol. Thayil is too savvy to use terms like ‘patriarchy’ in a novel that grapples with just that. Goody is Xavier’s ‘muse’. In her, he finds his emotional, sexual and artistic life. Xavier needs to be ‘looked’ after, he is a binger, a sourpuss, and has a penchant for ‘meaningless sex’, and abandoning people. Thayil explains her character, “Misogyny is the wrong word for Xavier. It is jargon. And jargon eventually means nothing. The correct word is heartlessness… the way he deals with people close to him in his life. I have seen this with male artists. They will sacrifice anything to the god of their own genius. And the sad thing is that people around them, who are sacrificed and destroyed, feel it is okay. Of course, it is not okay.”

As our conversation winds its way to feminism and empathy, Thayil starts to bustle around his living room. He picks out four books from his shelves and hands them over. He is leaving Delhi, he reveals, and is going to soon be based out of his parent’s home in Bangalore. He is headed for Vietnam, where he hopes to set his next novel. If the point of art is ‘not to imitate nature but to surpass it,’ one wonders how Vietnam is going to translate onto Thayil’s page in the future.