The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars
Aut insanit homo, aut versus facit. – The man is either mad or he is composing verses.
But what verses, would you say, emanate from the bosom of passion that borders on delirium? What timbre of voice floats in the smoked air held dense between intoxicating fame and inebriating oblivion? What fumes of rage charge the pen that knows its limits like a bird does the sky’s? Ask Xavier and he shall reveal the seething hearth, one ballistic verse (or painting) at a time.
When journalist Dismas Bambai embarks on expounding the poetic scene of post-colonial Bombay in an anthology, he excavates his known and obscure sources to put together the chapter on the Newton Francis Xavier. Xavier is a liar, a womanizer, a consumed painter. And he is also a loner, a masochist, a celebrated poet. Chronicle this 62-year old’s story across India and America, with cultural attendance of Bombay in full glory, is what the book does. Or not?
He had no interest in mimesis. He was interested only in transcendence.
The title is an ode to the poets deeply associated with Bombay/ Maharashtra – a kind of a warm induction into the erstwhile world that was pregnant with earthy verses, peppered with humor and yearning for a fairer, progressive society. My reading Dom Moraes two months ago is almost serendipitous as I lapped up his generous mentions in Thayil’s book like a hungry child – somewhere, I saw Moraes being powder-dressed to fit Thayil’s hero (or anti-hero). Arun Kolatkar, Nissim Ezekiel and many others contribute to the core thread of this book which, in form of short poems, unweave the messy patchwork of muted voices and broken relationships. The book also, interestingly, invokes Francis Newton Souza, the artist of post-independent India who garnered global recognition owing to his feral, untamed artistic craft. Fusing the protagonist with the traits of both the poet and the painter is Thayil’s way of calling us into a theatre and showing us a musical palimpsest!
Against trivializing most women as temporary stops, Xavier’s partner is depicted as a young woman of remarkable fortitude and empathy, albeit not without the occasional chinks in her strong armour. Goody Lol, her name. What’s in a name you say? Ribald humour.
The work is thematically both rich and subtle, cascading over issues of casteism, misogyny, patriarchy, lechery arising out of power, corruption and racism. There is rage, burning rage, and Thayil doesn’t mince words when throwing his acerbic gauntlet all over the 500 pages. His narrative is akin to a ravenous shower of slangs and urgency on the tedium of abhorrent inaction. Page after page after page, it heaps thoughts incessantly, sometimes sacrilegious ones too, and suddenly, comes to a halt. His Xavier turns a raconteur in a world of wily know-alls.
A critique, a tribute, a memoir, a reflection, a satire, a zeitgeist – in galloping brilliance, the chapters coalesce to form a work of wonderful dimensions and perspicacity. Needless to say, despite its length, the book turned a riot!
I must conclude with one fiery sample from this creation.
Poets, man! They’re the same all over. Mendicants, martyrs, lapsed monks convinced the world owes them an explanation or an apology or a meal, wine included. But fuck the dumb shit. I tell you this, 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 poet and expect blood. There will be a lot of it. Enlist the poets and stay away from the novelists because novelists are feckless. They have no feck at all. They are yes-men hungry for approval and patronage. As for playwrights, all they do is talk, talk, talk about the revolution and social justice, women’s empowerment and humanism, anarchism, but it never goes anywhere because that’s all it is, big talk, back talk, chit, chat, gossip. They’re good at it because that is how they gather material. When it comes to putting words into action? They’ll be the first to disappear. You will also come across scriptwriters and screenplay doctors. Be warned. They live in their own reality and it rarely coincides with anyone else’s. I advise you to tread carefully with those bastards. Walk among them as if you’re in a den of goddamn vipers. Count on nothing and you’ll be okay. The only ones you can trust are the short-story writers because they’re like poets in at least one respect. They shoot their shot in one go and this leads to an understanding of luck and discipline. They learn early that discipline lies in waiting and allowing the circumstances for luck to arise.