Jeet Thayil was born in 1959 in Kerala at his mother’s ancestral tharavad on the banks of the Muhattupuzha River. He was educated at Jesuit schools in Bombay, Hongkong, and New York, and worked as a journalist for twenty-three years before writing his first novel, Narcopolis. This interview was recorded over the course of two afternoons at the writer’s family home in Bangalore. Getting Thayil to speak was, in this interviewer’s opinion, akin to pulling teeth without anesthesia. The writer left the room several times, for long stretches, to make coffee, to answer the door, and for other mysterious and unexplained reasons. The only time he expressed any enthusiasm was when he was told that the interview was at an end.
INTERVIEWER: I’d like to start by asking whether living in India, in the midst of a multi-religious society, has had an affect on the way you look at faith. For instance, a writer brought up in Bombay will have a very different set of responses toward Islamophobia than a writer brought up in Brooklyn. I find there is a calibrated awareness of religious difference in your poetry and fiction, a response that appears to be democratic in its belligerence. Do you agree that this kind of syncretic allusiveness is a result of having been brought up in India?
THAYIL: I have no idea.
The author’s bio in your book states that you were a journalist for twenty-three years. In that case wouldn’t your style be profoundly affected by the practice and discipline of writing on deadline? What I mean to ask is: Has your background in non-fiction been a vital resource in the writing of this novel? The chapters set in New York following Sept. 11 seem to be ripped from the headlines, and there are set pieces of pure non-fiction, for instance the trial scene of Frank Roque in the courtroom in Mesa, Arizona. Would it be accurate to say that you have mixed fiction and non-fiction in a way that makes it difficult to know where one ends and the other begins?
What do you mean by “vengeful or bewildered or helpless nostalgia”? Is it similar to the feeling you get when you realize you had the lyrics of a song wrong all along? For example, I always thought the words of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ were how wonderful life is alone in the world. When I realized it was in fact how wonderful life is when you’re in the world the discovery filled me with, I suppose, a kind of bewildered nostalgia. Is that what the phrase means?
I notice also that some of the characters in your novel are real-life personalities, for instance, the poet Philip Nikolayev, and your father, the author and journalist, T.J.S.George, who are both quoted at length. How true to life are those passages? Is it a kind of fictionalized journalism, or a kind of true fiction?
I’m not sure.
Also, much of the book seems to be a thinly disguised version of the life of the poet Dom Moraes, with allusions to the painter FN Souza. I notice that you have retained the first names of Moraes’s parents, Beryl and Frank. Does this make the novel a kind of roman à cléf?
It’s certainly a possibility.
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Part oral history, part road movie and travel journal, part 9/11 memoir, part discovery of India, The Book of Chocolate Saints seems like an unclassifiable beast of a novel. The oral history, in particular, in which you have named the Bombay poets of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, with particular emphasis to Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla, Arun Kolatkar, and so on—is it an attempt to present actual slices of history under the rubric of ‘A Novel’?
Yes, thank you.
Would you agree that this is an extremely literary novel? I mean there is a monologue by Goody Lol during the act of sex that ends with the words yes I said yes I will yes and of course those are the seven words with which Joyce ends Nora Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses. There are allusions to Baudelaire, Allen Ginsberg, the Hungryalists and Auden. At one point V.S. Naipaul makes a kind of cameo appearance as God, and Indira Gandhi makes a cameo, not to mention Van Gogh and Rothko and a parade of real and made-up saints. It all seems terribly literary, and art-obsessive. Didn’t you worry this would make the novel hard to sell?
Of course I did.
Could you describe the book for us?
The Book of Chocolate Saints is the story 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. At the age of sixty-six, Xavier, who has been living in New York, is getting ready to return to the land of his birth to stage one final show of his work (accompanied by a mad bacchanal). As we accompany Xavier and his partner and muse Goody on their unsteady and frequently sidetracked journey from New York to New Delhi, the venue of the final show, we meet a host of memorable characters—the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, ‘poets who sprouted from the soil like weeds or mushrooms or carnivorous new flowers, who arrived like meteors, burned bright for a season or two and vanished without a trace’, journalists, conmen, murderers, alcoholics, addicts, artists, whores, society ladies, thugs—and are also given unforgettable (and sometimes unbearable) insights into love, madness, poetry, sex, painting, saints, death, God and the savagery that fuels all great art. Narrated in a huge variety of voices and styles, all of which blend seamlessly into a novel of remarkable accomplishment, The Book of Chocolate Saints is the sort of literary masterpiece that only comes along once in a very long time.
READ MORE: Book Review: Collected Poems by Jeet Thayil
But isn’t that your publisher’s blurb?
Yes. I doubt if I could do better. Besides, I feel I’ve said everything there is to say. It’s all in the book; I’m talked out.
Fair enough. Anything you’d like to add?