The Highs Of Jeet Thayil’s Low
February 17, 2020
In Jeet Thayil’s latest novel, Low, the grief and guilt-stricken protagonist is inveterately high.
In the wake of his wife’s suicide, Dominic Ullis comes to Bombay chasing amnesia. Bombay, ‘the city he knew best, where oblivion was purchased cheaply and without consequence’. But with every shot of heroin and every snort of cocaine, Ullis is forced instead to watch his memories mercilessly unspool from the reel of time, and he is left adrift in and addicted to his own waking dream.
Calling the book a dark comedy is slightly reductive, calling it anything is reductive – Thayil obliterates all labels and limitations with this one. Addiction to drugs and to people, the circular nature of grief and the arduous journey of trying to come to terms with it, the follies of the world and human foibles, he takes you through it all.
Thayil’s work draws from his own experiences, many of which most people would not have recovered from. His 2012 debut novel, Narcopolis, divulges his experience as an addict. Low, too, deals with drugs, but the book is less about drug addiction and more about drugs as a means of fortification against grief.
Low is autofiction. The entire story comes across as bitingly true because it has its roots in Thayil’s own life. He is honest and painfully observant. The narrative reads like powder dissolving on a spoon. You swim through the rush of close third person point-of-view, with Thayil and his Ullis, both of whom you feel like you’ve known forever, your old friends with a dark past and a wicked sense of humour.
Thayil and Ullis, both writers, suffer from Hepatitis C. They are very aware of the limited nature of time but are reckless and unafraid to take risks. In heart-breaking irony, both have lost their wives before their disease can affect them. Ullis, afraid of touching things to which memories are attached, puts himself as out of reach from the past as possible with the use of drugs.
In the book, death, grief, guilt, depression are all deconstructed down to minute morsels of clarity. In Ullis’ conversations with his wife, Aki, before her death, she tells him about her depression (the all-time low) and her wish to die ever since she was little. Her suicide plunges Ullis, with his incurable virus and drug addiction, into bottomless grief and regret. He blames himself for it and is convinced that ‘the shape of death is the missed intent behind spoken words’. He formulates that there are no five stages of grief, that there is only an infinite spectrum, and observes that grief is circular like time, but comfort flows only in one direction.
Thayil’s brilliantly self-reflexive storytelling makes you laugh bitterly, question urgently, and ache wonderfully.
Flashbacks And Digressions
Like most unreliable narrators, the narrator of Low is, self-admittedly, ‘all over the place’. As Ullis puts it, ‘Nothing here (is) linear and chronological.’
Thayil intersperses Ullis’s Bombay odyssey with flashbacks involving his dead wife and his childhood days on the streets of Bombay. These sequences are heavy in nostalgia, the memories enhanced by distance and time. Although Ullis tries his level best to avoid his past, it is the recollection of his past that reminds him of what it means to be alive. At the end of the novel, it is the conversations he had with his wife that show him he is capable of forgiveness and joy.
In appreciated digressions, Ullis contemplates the farce of national and global politics. He covers everything from the yoga antics of our own Prime Minister, who poses at posing, to the comical President of the United States, who Ullis hails as ‘the lodestar to the future’. He watches his videos like reality TV, a distraction to keep himself aloft through his grief.
While the flashbacks give an insight into Ullis’s past and personality, the digressions act as breaths of air to the reader through the protagonist’s dense jungle of sorrow.
Ullis meets a variety of people during his brief time in Bombay – drug-addicts, dancers, politicians, Western elitists, and homeless people. It is through these diverse and memorable characters that we get a glimpse of the different worlds within Bombay – intoxicated Bombay, nationalist Bombay, highfalutin’ Bombay, the Bombay of the streets of Bandra and the Bombay within the Taj.
Mayanagri/The City Of Dreams
Low is very much a Bombay book. The city lives within its pages, within Ullis and his memories. Kaleidoscopic and full of unstable highs and terrible lows, the city and the protagonist both attempt to heal deep psychic wounds that make them who they are.
Thayil says in an interview: ‘The cliché about Bombay describes ‘resilience’ in the face of tragedy. Whatever happens (…) the plucky city will bounce right back. That notion skirts the truth. Bombay bounces back because it cannot afford to do anything else. People live from hand-to-mouth, precariously, and they don’t take time off to mourn; as a result, the city is always in need of therapy.’
Ullis observes that Bombay is full of people who are reeling from one catastrophe and preparing for the next one. Inspired by the city’s indifference to cataclysm, he decides to follow his feet rather than his head, and lives by his catchphrase: ‘I don’t see why not’. He lets the city take him from one end of the sea link to the other and loses himself in whatever drugs he can lay his hand on. Thayil reminds us of the 2000s in Bombay, when cocaine ‘descended on the city like a dirty white blanket’. He memorialises and mythologises the city’s secret histories, the hidden haunts that live on in his memory.
Bombay English enriches the entire book, the language bent and reshaped to fit the needs of the breathing city. He uses words like ‘sussidal’, ‘mujik’, ‘literachure’, without italicising or caging them within quotes. He leaves them to be consumed as a natural part of the narrative, the different lingos of cabbies, townies, millennials, and assumes the readers will be able to translate them in their heads with the appropriate inflection. For him, Bombay is the only city in the world that hates English and aspires to it at the same time, like Thakre changing his name to Thackeray but insisting Bombay change its name to Mumbai.
Thayil’s Bombay is my Bombay. It is your Bombay, the city of your dreams, on the brink of reality and at the end of the world. It is the Bombay in which nostalgia resides, the smell of strong tea and sewage, dry fish and flowers, where every person has a language of their own and Mumbai is another place altogether.
If you’re from Bombay, the book hits you harder than usual. It tells you things you might already know and takes you to places you wouldn’t ordinarily go. Ullis informs us that Paradise Cafe in Mahim is so hospitable that they provide needles in a cup at every table. He shows us where his friends and he used to smoke behind Gateway of India, he takes us through a hard-hitting memory involving a homeless girl at Haji Ali. He drives us through Bandra and Pali Hill, we stop at the wine shop at Asiatic, then pass Sophia College, Wilson College, and enter a sea-facing room at Sea Green Hotel on Marine Lines. We are stuck in traffic with him, we judge the glorious ash-heap that is our city, with its endless gradations of caste and its ‘long-standing tryst with ugliness and wealth’.
He spends two pages describing the city without full stop, a fine metaphor for the ever-flowing city that never sleeps. And yet, this is not his home. For Ullis, home is wherever that makes you feel not alone, be it a city or a person.
After you finish reading the book, you question yourself – did the book make you feel high or low? The story is full of ridiculous events – ‘foreign-returned’ dead wives from hell appear on the ceiling for a last look around, people snort things that are other than drugs, forgetting a phone at a bar ends up saving the world. Thayil takes you on a journey of extraordinary grief that also brims with wry, witty, wonderful humour. All in all, it melts your heart. Low is a crazy trip.
Aashmika is a writer from Mumbai. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University and also has an MA in English Literature from Mithibai College, Mumbai. She is also a belly dancer, which successfully battles her professional introversion. When she isn’t reading or writing prose or poetry, she is watching TV shows. She loves animals, tattoos, nature, and taking pictures of things.
Aashmika is currently working on her first novel (but don’t ask her about it).
Read her articles here.