JEET THAYIL: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
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