In Conversation Lit for Life

Jeet Thayil on his novel, 'The Book of Chocolate Saints'

The Book of Chocolate Saints, Jeet Thayil’s second novel, is an exuberant celebration of the imagination

Poet and writer Jeet Thayil’s second novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, catapults you straight into the gloriously bacchanal universe 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.” Thayil talks about his latest novel and the characters who inhabit it in this email interview. Excerpts:

Newton Francis Xavier, your central character, is an amalgamation of the lives of two artists of Goan origin — Francis Newton Souza and Dom Moraes. Could you tell us a little about the genesis of this composite character?

I think it’s an unfortunate, reductive way to read fiction — as if it is fact. One reviewer went to the extent of monetising or quantifying Xavier as 70% Souza and 30% Moraes, or maybe it was the other way around. Another said that Goody Lol’s character is based on an artist who has had ‘x’ number of exhibitions, a number the novel got wrong.

To clarify: Goody is a fully realised fictional individual who has nothing to do with a real-life counterpart. (I should know, I wrote the book.) Nobody who writes fiction would make this kind of comment. I’ve got two words for that kind of reviewer, “A Novel”.

The cover says so. This is a work of the imagination; any other reading is a mistake at best and misinformed or deliberately misleading at worst. When readers in other countries read this book, nobody will connect the characters to supposed real-life counterparts.

Readers who do so deny themselves an important part of the reading experience, which is to look at a novel in a wider, more rewarding perspective. This is a story about art and artists, and about the glory and misery of the life artistic.

The Book of Chocolate Saints was carved out of your first book, Narcopolis — Newton is a fleeting presence there.

The original manuscript of Narcopolis was about a thousand pages. At one point, after a year or two of work, I had the good sense to extricate Dimple and make her the focus of the book. The part that remained became, after much subsequent work, The Book of Chocolate Saints. I am working on something new at the moment and I’m happy to say it has nothing to do with Newton or Dimple.

It’s a huge universe that the book captures: multiple worlds that revolve around the Bombay poets, of course. But also the experience of negotiating New York as a brown man, the chronicling of vagrancy, the excavation of specific tracts of history and the price of art, love, obsession and identity. How did research, witness and autobiography come together to create this universe?

Thanks for this question: it means you read the book. With some reviewers it’s clear they read only the oral history section concerning the Bombay poets. I don’t blame them. I know how badly reviewers in this country are paid and how quickly they are expected to produce a review. It’s probably too much to expect them to read an entire book when it’s so much easier to google previous reviews and produce something similar. And to answer your question: research and witness, yes, autobiography, not really.

Women are pivotal in many ways to Newton’s existence, both as an artist and as a human being, yet he isn’t particularly nice to them. In fact, the depiction of your female character is something a lot of reviewers seemed to have seen as a little problematic...

He isn’t nice to women but he is worse to men. In fact, he is far nicer to women than he is to men. I believe it is a sign of the Indian times. When one reviewer uses the word ‘misogyny’ others must use it too, because they haven’t read the whole book, and because they want to show that they know the meaning of the trending word.

The correct word in this case is ‘misandry’, which is a constant subtext, though no reviewer has picked up on it, perhaps because it is not as trendy a word as ‘misogyny’?

Goody Lol is one of the book’s three major female characters (for much of the novel, we see events and personalities only through her eyes), and she is a misandrist, which can be defined as a person who has a strong dislike of, or prejudice against, men; with good reason, in her case.

I don’t know how much clearer I can be than to quote the following sections:

“At night the city belonged to the men. You sensed them out there wild-eyed, sniffing the air with their intoxicated nostrils, using their meaty hands to break and gouge and caress, the men who swaggered out of the cradle and into the fields, drunk and defecating, whose default mode was sudden rage. They were all out there, the fathers and husbands and brothers and uncles, the guardians and feeders, the predator-protectors, the men.”

And this exchange between three women, after Goody has been assaulted (by a man):

‘‘‘Imagine a city, a state, a nation without women, the unrelieved ugliness of it. They’ll be stuck with each other, men on men on men. It is exactly what they deserve.’

‘A society of men without women,’ said Goody, imagining. ‘A definition of hell. And the punishment? That the men, the gross men will have to fuck each other and fantasize about women while they’re doing it.’

‘Serve them right,’ said Dharini, cupping her hands to her mouth to laugh.”

And this:

“Xavier imagined the men dying horribly in cramped spaces. He imagined them tortured with spoon excavators and a pair of pliers in the back of a windowless van, garroted at a urinal, buried alive in a basement closet, electrocuted in elevators or on staircases. He fantasized crimes in which he would cut their femoral arteries and watch entranced as they were lifted up in great waves of blood. He invented murder scenarios in which knives played a larger part than guns. The only firearms he allowed were shotguns that took away half his victims’ faces and left sucking wounds in the chest and unpluggable excavations in gut and groin. He preferred hunting knives because he wanted to be intimate with his murders. And now he was imagining the castration and killing of the sullen Army man who did nothing but stare at the women in the compartment. Openly he stared with his hand in his lap.”

If you can read these passages and still talk of misogyny I have to suspect that you have an agenda. Of course, these passages occur towards the end of the novel, so perhaps those readers didn’t get so far. The book ends with Goody, who emerges as the pivotal point of the story, because she is the one who will take it forward.

You’ve used multiple story-telling devices — poetry, memoir, journalism techniques, third-person narrative — to fictionalise a rich cultural history. Can you talk a little about the form of the “novel” and I’m using the term a little loosely here?

There is no looseness. A novel is called a novel exactly because the form is inexhaustible, is endlessly renewable, is sustainable, is always ‘novel’.

The drawing on the book cover is derived from Manu Parekh’s ‘The Last Supper’, based on the Da Vinci painting by the same name... could you talk about the significance of that painting?

Manu’s painting depicts Jesus and his disciples painted in the style of Souza. The cover focuses on a detail, on half of Christ’s face. Jesus here is not the blond, blue-eyed Caucasian depicted by the artists of the West, but a dark-skinned, black-haired Jew, in short, a chocolate saint.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 5:57:15 PM |

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