04 Feb 2018 16:33 IST

Believe it or not

Jeet Thayil’s ‘history of Indian poetry’ is razor-sharp in its observations

An old Goan artist lives in self-imposed exile in New York, suffering — media speculates — from artist’s block, alcoholic dementia or plain laziness. But before Newton Francis Xavier became a washout, he was a pioneering Indian poet who, as a youth in the 1950s, won a prestigious British prize hitherto only awarded to white men. Up to the ’70s he lived a life of debauchery among the Bombay poets before he switched to postmodern painting — “give them shit and see what happens” — and became, for the second time, an international superstar.

Now we are in post-9/11 America, where it is okay to be white or black, but art by chocolate-coloured people is no longer in vogue. Besides, shining India wants its stray son back for a last retrospective, now that Xavier is in his 60s. Rookie journo Dismas Bambai, tired of working for a community rag, decides to document the once great man’s comeback and The Book of Chocolate Saints is the outcome. The text thrives on razor-sharp observations made with the eyes and ears of a skilled writer, graphic descriptions of things, people and places, such as when we view the artist’s cluttered kitchen in which “making a cup of coffee was a philosophical manoeuvre. You had to take a position. You had to ask yourself, what is coffee? Why is it consumed? How far would I go for a cup?”

The countless voices in which the book speaks (often in the form of interviews about the past, conducted by Bambai) sound uncannily authentic, though the narrative itself meanders without much concern for consistency or logic. For example, the brief visit back to inaugurate the Indian exhibition alongside his muse Goody Lol results in the artist-poet Xavier moving to Bangalore and, from all appearances, settling down to live there, while for unclear reason his possessions are shipped to Delhi. At another point, the artist is said to be “fifteen or so” in mid-’70s in Bombay, when he starts painting and is seduced by his nude model, which doesn’t quite fit into a timeline in which he is born circa 1938 in Candolim.

In its attempt to capture the lives of poets, there are, of course, obvious parallels to Roberto Bolaño’s 1998 masterpiece The Savage Detectives, about lost poets in Mexico. However, to be a purportedly thoughtful book about the history of Indian poetry — “the autobiography of an era”, as it calls itself at some point — Chocolate Saints sets too much store by shock effects: verbose close-ups of horrendous alcoholism and addictions, brothels, incest and sodomy from the backstage of the culture scene. To further titillate, well-known poets such as Namdeo Dhasal appear thinly disguised under names like ‘Narayan Doss’, as if this were a roman-à-clef, while other literary personalities are actually named — Adil Jussawalla as a London-returned long-haired boy, Manohar Shetty as a bartender in a Bombay permit room, and the reclusive Vijay Nambisan, who wrote “sweet rhymes”. To top it all, Dom Moraes appears as himself even though it is his life’s story Thayil has drawn on for Xavier’s early career as a poet. Meanwhile, Xavier’s middle age is inspired by painter FN Souza, and, finally, his latter NRI-returnee days chronicle Thayil’s own life.

But when the author turns his focus to the fictional segments that are needed to bridge the narrative gaps between the ‘biographical’ bits, craft deserts him, and his writing becomes mechanical and repetitive, such as in the Bangalore chapters where multiple break-ups happen, and the classic “I’m going out to get cigarettes” (never to return again) line is recycled without leading to anything radically new. Despite the polyphonic prose, the narrative is curiously monotonic.

However, the biggest problem is the chief protagonist, Xavier, who is cobbled together from the biographical data of three disparate personalities, making his fictional persona as top-heavy as a beached whale. This, combined with the fact that one of those personalities is the author himself, who furthermore allows himself two more alter-egos — Bambai (who views Xavier as his “doppelgänger and hypocrite twin”) plus Thayil in an uncredited cameo (“skeletal fellow, strung out or drunk, who put together an anthology some years later”) — is confusing to say the least. Such a dual trinity with its overlaps is replete with the obvious Christian symbolism of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (and, maybe, too many bottles of sacramental wine make us see double trinities), a rebus which runs throughout until this tongue-in-cheekiness is extended to include Thayil’s own father, a journalist-editor, in the final chapters. All this makes for a jolly but bumpy read — and maybe that is the purpose of the book, to demonstrate the cumbersome burden of the Anglophone Indian creative personality.

This existential point is summed up towards the end, as the melancholic mess of the artist’s life settles down like graveyard dust, accompanied by overloaded statements such as when Indian poets die “there is no resurrection. They simply vanish…” Finally, in a few jokey lines of dialogue spoken on a train crossing central India, there’s perhaps epiphany, when a random woman says, “Like they say on TV, we are like this only.” Goody says, “Only we are like this.” Xavier/Thayil says, “Like, are we only this?”

(Zoe Chaya is a Bengaluru-based writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)