When Jeet Thayil writes a book about chocolate saints, one knows it will not be the kind populated with Easter eggs and Willy Wonkaian characters. Rather, think Umberto Eco acid-tripping on a couch punctured with cigarette burns in a moldy basement.
Chocolate, for South Indian writer and poet Thayil, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel Narcopolis, is about skin color and subversive calories. In his second novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, one hypnotic vignette in particular dents the memory. In a video, a skinny Japanese YouTube star eats, alone, a gigantic meal in front of her million followers:
floating captions informed the viewer about how many calories she would consume. Eighteen thousand.
The scene resonates because it echoes one of the themes permeating throughout the novel, that of aloofness. The world as seen by Thayil is a society of fake connections, where people sublet calories and feelings. There are also mentions of YouTube videos in which women cry on command for dead dogs; a society in which modern, claustrophobic solitude is only expanded by computer screens.
As often in Thayil’s writings, broken mirrors are the only ones the artist bears to look into.
Who are the saints in Thayil’s story? The saving sort they certainly are not. The main protagonist, aging poet Newton Francis Xavier (an obvious nod to Indian painter Francis Newton Souza) from the Goan town of Forgottem (the name is too lovely not to be mentioned) does not share much with the Jesuit Saint, apart from the name. Thayil sketches the portrait of the artist as a broken man, as remembered by his mother, but also his unofficial biographer and former lovers, including one with the delicious name of Goody Lol—a pornstar name generator would probably have done better, but who cares? One of the women Newton Francis Xavier almost ends up marrying describes him:
When I looked at him it was like looking into a mirror that had cracked. I’m sure he felt the same way.
As often in Thayil’s writings, broken mirrors are the only ones the artist bears to look into. With his words the author likes to smash and trample—saints included—and then collect the tiny pieces, even if they cut and draw blood. This is his path to sainthood, with Jesus’s thorns scattered all over the highway to heaven. “Praise the broken world”, the prologue starts.
Newton is the archetypal artist with a conflicted relationship with his public and critics.
If he knew you admired him and liked his work he treated you badly. If you cared nothing for him he would turn on the charm.
For journalist Dismas Bambai, the self-proclaimed biographer trailing Newton from New York to Goa, “the transformation of the silent young poet to drunken raconteur” is easy enough to track down. The doomed genius leaves behind him a trail of marriages, divorces and paintings as empty as the bottles littering his life, haunted by this thought: how does one survive the death of one’s art? What fate awaits the artists who were not “lucky” enough to meet a conveniently-timed death; what if French poet Arthur Rimbaud had not died at 37? After a successful debut as a poet, Newton runs away from these questions and their lack of answer, moving from India to New York, London and Paris and then back, wasting his talent, using and abusing drugs and alcohol, claiming the right to survive his art, the right to fail, to be only human, neither a sinner nor a saint, and to be loved despite that. It is no light statement when the book describes poets and saints as sharing “the flagellation of the flesh and the lonely difficult deaths.”
The plot overflows with characters and subplots, lyrical ramblings which could be genuine or self-poking, in a confusing, generous hotchpotch. Thayil sometimes resorts to an impressionist style of writing, resulting in long shopping lists of words. However, he can be forgiven as he never forgets to be funny, particularly when he gently teases India.
This was what Indians did in a room with a television: they found a cricket match because somebody somewhere was always throwing a bat against a ball.
He is particularly brilliant when he clashes Englishness and Indianness, dissecting the post-colonial guilt prevalent among foreign-educated Indian writers such as himself.
Then he muttered something about genital amputation and the ghost penis, or he might have said guest pianist. The plummy British monotone was difficult to follow.
Beyond the joke, Thayil ponders. Is one’s command of English an affectation, or an education? What weight should an Indian author give to English as a “mother tongue” versus one’s “mother’s tongue”, such as, in Newton’s case, Konkani? Hence the brown saints celebrated in the book. Next to the white Christs adorning the vaults of countless European churches, Thayil promotes the right for skies to be “the colour of smudged kajal”, for the right for Hindu goddess Kali, a black Madonna, and a chocolate Jesus with black blood to exist, and for the right for brownness to be worshipped.
Another compelling theme of the book is its powerful characterization of the post-terror racism that choked the United States after 9/11, especially as experienced by “towel-heads”, as Indian nationals were sometimes called.
He is Brooklyn-born and Brooklyn-bred, a New Yorker with a doomed love of the Red Sox, and none of it means a thing because today he is nothing more than an animated logo. He is a running turban.
One of the side characters is named Amrik, whose birth name phonetically carries his family’s integration wish. But his passport is not enough, and Amrik ends up shaving his beard and losing the head wear. Sikhs are turbana non grata in post-terror America, where the simple fact of smiling at a woman in the street can trigger a panic attack and a frantic 911 call. Having himself lived in New York, Thayil bitterly expresses here a feeling experienced by many fellow citizens: “Never white enough or warm enough in America, never Indian enough in India.”
Ultimately Thayil’s book is about the doomed pedestals—be they art or a sense of belonging—we spend our lives crawling towards, falling and failing, onwards and downwards, a multitude of Sisyphuses atoning for unknown sins. And because Thayil’s literature is paradoxically both about asking for forgiveness and reminiscing fondly, his novel is not so much about the redemptory end of the tunnel, but rather about the tunnel itself, about the ride it is, trying to crawl out of there, to wiggle out of one’s torn clothes and broken soul. Thayil might toy with the light; his soul remains the color of the night.