No vigils left to keep, No enemies left to slaughter. Dom Moraes, in his 1983 poem <Absences>, perhaps best describes what he would not know then to be his own fictional reincarnate. Like the poem, the protagonist of Jeet Thayil’s novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, Newton Frances Xavier lives in the dilemma of conflict, much in the aftermath of it. Only in this case, the conflict does not appear to be in the face of a direct confrontation but the lack of it. In fact, it lies in the connected dots of the characters Xavier faces throughout his elusive life.
It would be true to say that Thayil’s second novel is an ambitious read. More than just a novel, it can be said to be a homage to the potpourri of artists and poets who cramped the creative scene of the 1980’s Bombay. For those initiated with the times, it would not be surprising to find some renowned artists at almost every turn of the page. Eunice De Souza, Arun Kolatkar and most prominently, Dom Moraes, to whom the book is dedicated. Fiction only enters in the fragments tying the story together. In fact, there are even glimpses of the author himself. No, the book is definitely not an attempt at an autobiography but seems to be a mirror which allows Thayil to comprehend some of the points in his life. However, it is difficult to say whether Thayil wants to juxtapose them against the western artistic culture (by presenting a veiled satirical picture) or wants to plaster the final confirmation of the western imposition on their art. Whatever is it, one thing that Thayil definitely wants to portray is the inherent madness in each of these artists which makes them loners of the same eclectic club. A club in which drunken, sexually violent and addicted and, most importantly, forgotten geniuses have together closed the door to the world. Like Thayil says, “poets who had been forgotten by everyone except the odd scholar or barkeep to whom they owed money”
At the centre of the book is Newton Frances Xavier, a Goan painter, poet and drunkard who lives in New York but leaves a post-9/11 city wrecked in fearful thoughts. A quick analysis of the character reveals that he himself is a blend of two major influences of Thayil’s life – Dom Moraes and painter Francis Newton Souza. Interestingly, the author seems of have borrowed chunks out of Souza’s life to fill in Xavier’s childhood. Like that part where Xavier is expelled from his school for drawing a graffiti on the wall of his school’s toilet is directly taken from Souza’s experience as a school student in Goa. However, readers who are familiar with Thayil’s work would know that Newton Frances Xavier was already introduced in <Narcopolis>, the author’s first novel which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
In The Book of Chocolate Saints, the author’s second novel, Thayil takes the liberty to explore Xavier through the latter’s same perpetual weaknesses – booze, broads and beauty. Xavier’s tendency for broads is only reflected in his repeated drunken stupors and frequent need to untangle himself from the demands of a relationship. In the first page itself, Xavier is seen fleeing secretly from his wife of eighteen years to be with Goody Lol, his muse (another character loosely borrowed from Souza’s personal life). Indeed, Xavier is married thrice and has a plethora of women in his life, without being explicitly able to claim his love for any one of them. One thing that the book points out now and again, is that the only identity Xavier has been able to build for women in his life is that of beauty. What he seems to need and pine for is a muse for his art project till the painting is complete. And by the time, a project is over, Xavier would have already seen enough through the emotional peephole of the muse for it to appear lacklustre. In fact, women in the novel or per se Xavier’s life hardly have a say in the way the protagonist whirls around them and at best assure and reassure Xavier of his sexual abilities. Like the model Glory Pande, who recounts how her enlarged breasts were a confirmation of Xavier’s sexual prowess. At certain points, it seems like Thayil almost gives Xavier a freehand over women, making it almost justifiable for an artist, whose love for his art is above all mortal beings. Also, if the author was inspired by a host of artists lighting the poetry scene in Bombay, he could have paid tributes to at least some women poets who flourished in that era. Who wouldn’t have recognised Kamala Das’s explicit words on women’s actual desire? Or does Thayil just recognise artists to be desirous, damaged and aloof men in whose lives women can’t claim to be more than stage props?
However, one still cannot unsee Xavier’s carnivorous mind, stealing his inspirations from the commonplace market of facts. It is as if Xavier’s personalities dual with each other. He is addicted to the emotions of his art but callous in his approach to relationship which does not limit itself to romantic liaisons. He even leaves his young daughter without much of a hint of remorse. He is magnanimous and outlandish but coward and laden with the insecurities of time.
Most of the protagonist’s tale is told through interview excerpts of Dismas Bambai, Xavier’s biographer. Throughout of the length of the interviews it becomes increasingly clear that Xavier is himself trying to escape the finality of his artistic abilities. “You understand that thought is the enemy, the source of all lesions, tumours and sarcomas; then thought becomes flesh becomes the emblem of your shame,” this quote by Xavier almost exposes the poignant gamble of thoughts in the painter’s mind.
One thing that Thayil manages to achieve through this book is to divide the reader’s mind. One half that shivers in the cruelty of the painter and the other half that sympathizes with him. There is also this other part which has to admire the artist despite the person in the artist.
The unrestrained volatility in The Book of Chocolate Saints is one of the main reasons why you read this book. Both the language and the characters are unabashed and Thayil manages to capture the reader’s attention at every sentence either through shock or awe. The novel will leave you aghast but also satisfied. At best, it tries to pull the desperate and hidden glories of the unclaimed artists from the potholes of their times.