India Today - - INSIDE - —Shougat Das­gupta

FIVE YEARS AF­TER poet Jeet Thayil’s de­but novel Nar­copo­lis made the short­list for the Booker Prize, he’s back with a long, wind­ing fol­low-up, The Book of Choco­late Saints. It has been a work long in the mak­ing, carved out (or vice versa) from the ini­tial draft of Nar­copo­lis, which was a Knaus­gaard-like 1000+ page out­pour­ing of aut­ofic­tion, an at­tempt to memo­ri­alise in print the Bom­bay Thayil knew as it was erased. For long-time denizens, cities are palimpsests, each street over­laid with ghosts,

with traces of in­di­vid­ual and cul­tural his­tory. And though The Book of Choco­late Saints (Aleph Book Com­pany, Rs 799)is ded­i­cated to the jour­nal­ist and poet Dom Mo­raes, it is as much an of­fer­ing to the Bom­bay of the ’70s and ’80s, a crum­bling city lit by a near-di­a­bol­i­cal artis­tic en­ergy.

Sit­ting in an apart­ment in south Delhi— the book­shelves dusty with lack of use, the rooms bereft, since Thayil now lives mostly in Ban­ga­lore—Thayil’s voice rises in pitch even now as he talks about the ex­cite­ment he felt writ­ing the sec­tions in the novel about the Bom­bay po­ets. “I’m as­ton­ished that no writer has writ­ten about that time al­ready,” he says. “Be­cause it was ex­tra­or­di­nary, an un­prece­dented flow­er­ing that had never oc­curred be­fore and at this point, you can be sure, will never hap­pen again.”

Though he was too young to be a cen­tral fig­ure, Thayil was an ac­com­plished poet be­fore he wrote his first novel, and lived on the fringes of the scene. He was in thrall to the likes of Mo­raes, Nis­sim Ezekiel, Adil Jus­sawalla, Arun Ko­latkar, Namdeo Dhasal and to the grav­i­ta­tional pull these great men ex­erted on a mul­ti­lin­gual gal­axy of lit­tle mag­a­zines, small presses and job­bing scriven­ers. Dis­mas Bam­bai, one of three ma­jor pro­tag­o­nists in The Book of Choco­late Saints, is one such scrivener, a for­mer art critic at the ‘Times of Bharat’ who has moved to New York and writes for a rag aimed at In­dian im­mi­grants.

He has em­barked upon a project much like that of Thayil—an oral his­tory and bi­og­ra­phy of one of its charis­matic stars, the fic­tional New­ton Fran­cis Xavier, a com­pos­ite of Mo­raes and the painter F.N. Souza, a founder of the Pro­gres­sive Artists’ Group, an In­dian avant garde that ar­guably paved the way for the Bom­bay po­ets.

Bam­bai shares his first name with the “pen­i­tent thief” cru­ci­fied along­side Je­sus and dis­tin­guished from the “im­pen­i­tent thief”, the third man hang­ing from a cross, by his plea for Je­sus’ mercy. Ac­cord­ing to a once pop­u­lar myth, Dis­mas is a sort of non-canon­i­cal saint and ac­com­pa­nied Christ on his jour­ney to Par­adise. That jour­ney is par­al­leled in Thayil’s novel in the form of Xavier’s re­turn, at 66, to In­dia from New York for a fi­nal show. He is ac­com­pa­nied by Goody Lol, his muse, an In­dian from north­ern Eng­land who serves as a moral coun­ter­point to both Xavier and Dis­mas. She is an artist too. But un­like her male coun­ter­parts, she’s un­able to pre­tend that self-in­ter­est, dis­tance, and emo­tional cru­elty are es­sen­tial to the mak­ing of art.

The Book of Choco­late Saints is by no means an easy book. Over 500 pages long, it me­an­ders and ram­bles. It slips in and out of reg­is­ters. It at­tempts to tell nu­mer­ous side sto­ries on the mar­gins of the two main nar­ra­tive thrusts. And, yet, it’s struc­tured so that the pace only rarely flags.

Thayil is quick to credit his pub­lisher David Davi­dar with a late change to the novel’s struc­ture that cast large sec­tions of it in the voices of the fig­ures whom Bam­bai is in­ter­view­ing for his oral bi­og­ra­phy. Along­side this “bi­og­ra­phy like no other... a win­dow from which to view a bro­ken so­ci­ety and a van­ished lit­er­a­ture”, Bam­bai is writ­ing a novel ti­tled ‘The Loathed’. It is “about the po­ets of Bom­bay in the eight­ies and nineties”, a “fic­tion­alised mem­oir of the Bom­bay po­ets, part crime thriller and part gos­sip sheet”. It achieves cult sta­tus, spawn­ing a play and a film that wins an award at Sun­dance. It also ends his bud­ding friend­ship with Xavier.

The books within books give the novel im­pe­tus, tak­ing the reader on a quest to un­cover a pe­riod in lit­er­ary his­tory and to ex­plain why it mat­ters. And it’s clear Thayil took great plea­sure in his re­search as he sets down his glass of Mal­bec and scram­bles to the book­shelf to re­trieve Hen­ri­etta Mo­raes’ mem­oir to find a pic­ture of Dom at 20—full-lipped and dewyeyed. But Thayil is not nos­tal­gic about bo­hemia, or about char­ac­ters like Hen­ri­etta, who was a model for painters Fran­cis Ba­con and Lu­cien Freud. Rather, his novel is a chron­i­cle of fail­ure, a rue­ful recog­ni­tion that the Bom­bay po­ets were “a quick burst of fire” whose em­bers have long ago ceased to smoul­der.


The book is an ode to ’70s Bom­bay, and to the artists that lit it up

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