I haven’t fallen out of love with poetry, poetry fell out of love with me: Jeet Thayil

After four volumes of poetry and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature winning (and Man Booker Prize short-listed) debut novel Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil is back with his second — The Book of Chocolate Saints. Published by Aleph Book Company, Chocolate Saints sees Thayil cast his eye (and pen) over the travails and adventures of an artist, Newton Francis Xavier, and also over the real life Bombay Poets. In an interview with Firstpost, Thayil spoke about his new book, and poetry.

The Book Of Chocolate Saints is about poetry as much as it is about poets, and about artists as much as it is about art. But does it take a unique life and experience to be able to record this unexpectedly giving, and as it now turns out, fertile land of interlocking lives, careers, reputations and ends?

I suppose it does, in that you have to be immersed in a world to write about it with any degree of conviction, and to reproduce it so that it carries a sense of truth being told. I feel lucky that I was witness to many of the people and events that are fictionalised in The Book of Chocolate Saints. If I had had to rely solely on research I doubt I would have been able to pull it off. To write a book of this length you need a deep reserve of enthusiasm: mine came from the knowledge that I was in territory that hadn’t been explored in Indian fiction.

Jeet Thayil. Photo courtesy Akansha Sharma

Jeet Thayil. Photo courtesy Akanksha Sharma

Both your poetry and novels are acutely personal. What does Jeet Thayil think of Jeet Thayil the poet, and the novelist, in a nutshell?

As with most writers who work in both genres, the poet and the novelist are at war: the poet wants to be a tree and the novelist wants to punch the clock at 9 am. I think poets are their own worst critics. I am acutely aware of early poems in which I have failed in some way, usually because I haven’t put in enough work. In that sense,with The Book of Chocolate Saints I feel bulletproof against my inner critic. I know how much work went into it.

You wrote in your Collected Poems, that you might never publish poetry again. In The Book of Chocolate Saints you call out on the irony of poets and poetry a number of times. Has this perception built over time? What do you see when you look back at the days when you were writing, as part of a ‘scene’, one that you are considered a part of – at least on paper?

At the time I never thought I was part of a ‘scene’. If anything I felt isolated, outside history. In the 1980s, it seemed to me that the older poets of Bombay had constructed an impregnable fort surrounded by a moat filled with crocodiles. The poets, and the crocodiles, were territorial to the extreme. It’s a wonder to me that young poets persisted in their foolishness; it’s a wonder they still do so.

In terms of recording cultural history, The Book of Chocolate Saints goes where no one has before — both in its subject and the candidness of approach. Is that projection intended, or did it mushroom into something as you wrote along? Chronicling this history happens rarely. How big a problem is this? 

That was always the intention, to strip the layers of mythology and fantasy from the idea of the artist. As I worked on it, over six years, it mushroomed into a kind of atomic cloud I could not have imagined at the start. It is astonishing to me that more people haven’t written about our cultural history, considering how rich it is and considering how much attention is lavished on politicians and interchangeable “celebrities”. There have been important scholarly studies of the poets and the artists, but very little fiction. I hope this will change, though I’m not holding my breath.

Jeet Thayil's The Book of Chocolate Saints

Jeet Thayil's The Book of Chocolate Saints

At the heart of the book, is Newton Francis Xavier, the artist. But you focus on a number of peripheral characters, whether it is in capturing their experience of being immigrants in America, their sexual dalliances or professional aspirations (perhaps modelled on yourself). Why were these characters and the fleshing of these details important to you – as you have two strong anchors for the book in Dismas and Xavier?

I’m surprised you see only two anchors when there are three, Goody Lol being crucial. She is one of the strongest characters in the book, particularly in her opinions about Indian men and in the resilience and kindness with which she conducts her work and her life. She is a mirror to Xavier’s heartlessness and Dismas’s venality. Unlike Xavier, she will not put her art above everything because she cannot ignore the human cost. “I’m not insane enough to be an artist above all else,” she says at the end. “I’m not cruel enough.” She’s talking about Xavier and also about all artists, male and female, who feel entitled because of their art. I think this is as clear an indication as any as to the author’s sympathies.

A major characteristic of the book — that also perhaps appears subversively in the title — is to call out the casual misogyny and marginalisation of women in the arts; the image of the sexy, ‘loner and perennially high man poet’ if I may. A part of it I assume is also confession? Are there things you regret having done or been party to in this context? And do you see this environment as only having continued since, with young poets wanting to emulate rather than invent?

I don’t understand how misogyny is implied in the title: the word “saint” applies to men and women, and there are several female saints in the book, particularly Goody Lol and Beryl Xavier. In any case, I think misogyny is the wrong word. Xavier is not a misogynist. If anything, he worships women. His condition is heartlessness and cruelty, and this applies to all who enter his orbit, men and women: he sees them as fodder in the service of his genius. I have witnessed this type of behavior on occasion, but The Book of Chocolate Saints is a work of fiction and fiction has its own engine.

The Bombay groups — the Progressives and the Poets — are not only inspiration, but appear in the book as well, and not without colour. What, if anything, do you think their reaction – Adil Jussawala for example, or those closest to them – will be?

Adil read the book and enjoyed it and responded with humour and good grace, as he does. I can’t speak for other poets and artists: you’ll have to ask them.

Have you fallen out of love with poetry? Are the only poets who matter ‘the ones who pick up guns’?

I haven’t fallen out of love with poetry; poetry fell out of love with me.

Updated Date: Nov 05, 2017 12:14 PM

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