Book Excerpt: From Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints

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The Chocolate Saints

… word ‘Russia’ is enough to make some Bengalis teary-eyed. They made me recite my poems at great length in Russian, although they didn’t understand a word. In return some of the men recited Bengali poems. I was surprised to learn that the plant boss had given permission for this exchange and that the whole factory had come to a halt for the duration. I live in Boston where poetry is an obscure priestly pursuit. I thought to myself, Calcutta’s air is thick with a million fumes but here a poet can breathe easy. Perhaps I’d been affected by Bengali sentimentality, after all I’m Russian.

After that first visit I returned several times. I’ve travelled in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra and stayed in ashrams in Delhi, Benares, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Dehra Doon, and rural Bengal. A pilgrim’s progress and a poet’s progress. I learned Urdu and Hindi to the point of some fluency. When I visit India, which isn’t as often as I’d like, I use Calcutta as my base and branch out from there to Delhi, Bombay, Madras.

I met Xavier and Doss toward the end of my first visit when I attended the poetry conference. I had done some translation, Pushkin, Mandelshtam, Brodsky. When Xavier asked if I could contribute to the anthology I thought he wanted my translations from the Russian. But why would he want Russians in an anthology of Indian poetry? When I realized what he was getting at I didn’t agree right away. I didn’t know if my Urdu was good enough to translate poetry into English. Of course that was the point. Doss and Xavier came up with the idea of anthologizing the kind of poets who had never before been anthologized, outliers, rebels, hermits, dangerous faces unwelcome in polite society. They found poets no one had ever heard of, or had heard of once and quickly forgotten, or had heard of many times over a period and then never heard of again.

I think there were some clear guiding principles that shaped the anthology. Mainly they went out of their way to eschew sentimentality. Too far out in my opinion, Newton particularly. I think he’d read too much hardboiled noir set on the mean streets of Los Angeles or Saratoga or Louisiana. It was no guilty pleasure either. He used those books like fuel. Once I asked him to send me a reading list. This would have been in 2002, the year I compiled such lists from some of my friends. Newton was in New York and he sent me his list by email. It numbered in the hundreds.

I made a partial list from his original. As you will see he survived on a diet of poetry and pulp with a preference for vanished poets. I am speaking of course of the modernist trinity of Srinivas Rayaprol, Lawrence Bantleman and Gopal Honnalgere, poets who had been forgotten by everyone except the odd scholar or barkeep to whom they owed money. If for nothing else, the Hung Realist anthology should be acknowledged for reinstating these three lost souls to the stage or street corner or gang to which they belonged. But also I found it pleasurable to see the way obscure American and Indian poets rubbed shoulders with vanished thriller, pulp, and sci-fi authors. My friend Ben Mazer with the pseudonymous Richard Stark and the Marathi poet Manohar Oak, self-proclaimed charsi who once asked to borrow five rupees from me, five, not fifty, which I thought was kind of him because I would have given him fifty if he’d asked. He was homeless at the time, or almost homeless. Toru Dutt, Nitoo Das, Monika Varma, Gauri Deshpande, Reetika Vazirani, Arundhathi Subramaniam, and Anindita Sengupta were grouped together, which seemed correct. But so were Ed Wood, Anis Shivani, Ajithan Kurup, Temsula Ao, H. Rider Haggard, Raul de Gama Rose, Tishani Doshi, Seicho Matsumuto, Revathy Gopal, Karthika Nair, Sridala Swami, and Zulfikar Ghosh, a grouping that seemed incorrect though I am still unable to say why. The baroque racism of the reclusive H. P. Lovecraft had been set against the sweet rhymes of the reclusive Vijay Nambisan. Lovecraft and Nambisan, now there are two names you would never normally see in the same sentence! Saleel Wagh, Indira Sant, Vilas Sarang, Arun Kale, Mamta Kalia, Bal Sitaram Mardhekar, Vinda Karandikar, Damodar Prabhu, and Dilip Chitre may have belonged together as Marathi poets of a certain age, but why distance them from Narayan Surve, an orphan poet who grew up on the streets of the city, or the future publisher Hemant Divate, or the future trouble-maker Bhalchandra Nimade, or Bandu Waze (what a name and what a story, the poet and painter who gave up writing and painting and moved into a temple near Poona), not to mention Sadanand Rege, Vasant Dahake, and Namdeo Dhasal, all of whom had equally dramatic, if not melodramatic life stories? He was also reading a selection of the English modernists of course, A. K. Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Dom Moraes, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, but they had been lumped with the detective novelists Georgette Heyer, Dorothy L. Sayers, and James Crumley, and the formalist Vikram Seth. Then there were the combinations that seemed so oddly fitting I thought there must be something more to it. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Cornell Woolrich, Anna Kavan, Leela Gandhi, Chester Hines, C. P. Surendran, Bhujang Meshram, Vivek Rajapure, Subhashini Kaligotla, Alexander Trochi, Keki Daruwalla, James Hadley Chase, Anjum Hasan, Margaret St Clair, Max Brand, Bruce King, Catherine Moore, Gurunath Dhuri, Patricia Highsmith, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Anand Thakore, Bhanu Kapil, William McIlvanney, Imtiaz Dharker, L. Ron Hubbard, Dashiel Hammett, Kamala Das, Herbert Huncke, Philip José Farmer, Easterine Kire, Menka Shivdasani, Ranjit Hoskote, Ken Bruen, Alexander Baron, Curtis Bauer, E. V. Ramakrishna, and Richard Bartholomew. And the combinations that seemed purely bizarre. Sudesh Mishra, Robert Bloch, Stephen Dobyns, Mickey Spillane, Mani Rao, Ravi Shankar (the poet, not the sitar player), Mamang Dai, Gary Phillips, Elizabeth Hand, Desmond Kharmawphlang, Jim Thompson, Suniti Namjoshi, G. S. Sharat Chandra, K. Srilata, Kazim Ali, Mary Erulkar, Hubert Selby Jr., Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bibhu Padhi, Manohar Shetty, Jim Carroll, Helen Zahavi, Robin Ngangom, Santan Rodrigues, Anupama Raju, Natsuo Kirino, Ruth Vanita, Priya Sarukkai Chabra, Samuel Loveman, Vivek Narayanan, Monica Ferrell, Gerard Malanga, Leigh Brackett, Elaine Sexton, Saleem Peeradina, Melanie Silgardo, K. Satchidanandan, H. Masud Taj, John Rechy, S. Santhi, Malay Roychoudhury, Tulsi Parab, and of course the father of them all, not Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who stopped writing in English at the advice of an English poet, but Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, who had no tongue but English, who died at the age of twenty-two, in 1831, when Madhusudan Dutt was all of seven years old.

Anyway, as I was saying, to hear those guys talk you would think sentimentality was the enemy of poetry. But there was more to it than that. I want to go back to an evening in 1984 at the World Poetry Conference, perhaps the same evening the Parsi kid was talking about, or it could have been another night. We were walking on the ghats and we passed a flower shop and I stopped for a few minutes to take a closer look. I was interested in the way the flowers were handled by the vendor. Floristry has a distinct and complex interpretation in India, which responds to climate of course but also the cultic and ceremonial uses of flowers, as well as tradition, taste, and who knows what else. I am no proponent of the binary but sometimes it can be useful. I was watching the vendor work and it came to me that the west thinks in bouquets and the east in garlands. A flower shop expresses India as much as a temple. How they stack the flowers, how they wash them, how they bunch them, how they decapitate them, how they weigh batches of flower heads on scales, pile them high, spread them on water trays, package them, break them up into loose petals, festoon them, wreathe them, colour-coordinate them, scrutinize them to remove faults. It’s a craft of a million things I can’t pretend to know enough about. Also, let’s not forget, flowers heads are offered to the gods as prasad. I always thought this beheading of plants was a vegetarian version of the goat sacrifices at Kalighat. That evening I bought a packet of marigold petals, cheaply and for no reason. It was completely fresh. As we walked I held up the petals and said, this marigold was a poet not long ago. Doss and the Parsi boy did not hear or they pretended not to hear. But Xavier! I’ll always remember the expression on his face, as if a cold hand had closed around his heart. He looked at the flower like it was the face of a friend who had disappeared a long time ago. It lasted for a few seconds no more and then he was back to his usual self, the world-weariness he wore like a cloak or a mask.

About the book:

In incandescent prose, award-winning novelist Jeet Thayil tells the story of Newton Francis Xavier, blocked poet, serial seducer of young women, reformed alcoholic (but only just), philosopher, recluse, all-round wild man and India’s greatest living painter. At the age of sixty-six, Xavier, who has been living in New York, is getting ready to return to the land of his birth to stage one final show of his work (accompanied by a mad bacchanal). As we accompany Xavier and his partner and muse ‘Goody’ on their unsteady and frequently sidetracked journey from New York to New Delhi, the venue of the final show, we meet a host of memorable characters—the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, ‘poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace’, journalists, conmen, murderers, alcoholics, addicts, artists, whores, society ladies, thugs—and are also given unforgettable (and sometimes unbearable) insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art.

Narrated in a huge variety of voices and styles, all of which blend seamlessly into a novel of remarkable accomplishment, The Book of Chocolate Saints is the sort of literary masterpiece that only comes along once in a very long time.

About the author:

Jeet Thayil was born in Mamalasserie, Kerala, and educated in Bombay, Hong Kong and New York. His first novel, Narcopolis, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012 and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.His five poetry collections include Collected PoemsEnglish, and These Errors Are Correct, which won the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry. He is the editor of 60 Indian Poets and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Jeet Thayil wrote the libretto for Babur in London, which toured Switzerland and the United Kingdom in 2012.

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