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.

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By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

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Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

To do otherwise would be to deny an integral part of myself. I write because I must, because of my addiction to the feel of an ink pen between my fingers scribbling word-code onto one blank page after another. To me, writing is an aesthetic pleasure that sets every fibre of my being into vibration, when I’m actually doing it. The other reason I write is to be able to make sense of my own thoughts and feelings, and creatively express them onto the page or screen. Sometimes, just the writing process is a form of catharsis for me, even though my scribbles make no sense.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My last book, Afterlife: Ghost stories from Goa, published by Rupa (2012) is a novel that follows the lives of X generations within a Goan family. At a get-together to celebrate the patriarch’s 75th birthday, there is a powercut that leads organically to the family swapping ghost-stories. Through the process or sharing oral histories, the family history and some secrets are revealed. The structure became an important part of telling the story of the family; I used a frame narrative device to interlink the individual stories. It’s more of a commentary about the social mores of South Goan society, diasporic culture and religious aspects among other things. My intention was to create a story that wasn’t just about ‘ghosts’ but about the things that haunt us emotionally and psychologically.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Excavating words to reveal complex layers of emotion. At least, that’s the aspiration!

The Hindustan Times has published a list of the greatest Indian novels ever written.  The paper says, “It might feel incomplete (only books written in English or translations of works in Hindi and other regional languages figure here). It might seem biased (they’re personal picks from the best literary minds of our time). It might even appear as though we’ve missed your personal favourite (lists tend to do that). But for anyone looking to jump into the rich world of Indian writing, it’s a beautiful and imperative start. ”

A jury of eight – writers, publishers, academics and book critics – nominated 10 books each. The jury comprised of Amitava KumarChiki SarkarDavid DavidarHarish Trivedi, Jeet ThayilJerry PintoRavi Singh and Sunil Sethi. 

Jeet Thayil-NarcopolisAuthor Jeet Thayil says he wrote Narcopolis as a way of reclaiming Bombay’s history

Bombay. Mumbai. Bambai. City of secret yearnings, nascent dreams, timorous memory. Steeped in glamour and restless energy. Swathed in timeless magic and fairy lights. Beneath it all, her heart of darkness. Bollywood and brothels, paucity and opulence, despair and sanguinity, grime and purity—everything is allowed to exist, everyone is allowed to be and therein lies her beauty. Like a woman of the night who paints her face, sheds her skin and shrouds her soul as she flits from lover to lover, Bombay belongs to everyone because she is owned by no one at all.