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Home / Books / Review: Low by Jeet Thayil

Review: Low by Jeet Thayil

Grief, guilt, Mumbai, and Donald Trump loom over Jeet Thayil’s new novel

books Updated: Feb 14, 2020 19:43 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
Carrying hell within you: The right panel from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516).
Carrying hell within you: The right panel from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516).(Universal Images Group via Getty)

A quarter of a century ago, Jeet Thayil steered me, self pitying tears tasting of Old Monk streaming down my cheeks, to a dive behind the Taj in Bombay, back to the man I eventually married. “No fighting!” the manager at Gokul admonished us, wagging his finger. I suppose I shall continue to stalk off determined never to return, each time foiled by friends, offspring, and pet dogs until I Zimmerframe my way onto a pyre. Thayil hasn’t starred in a domestic comedy. He got home one day to a dead wife.

Low is the story of Dominic Ullis, who “following the death of his wife… escapes to Bombay in search of oblivion and a dangerous new drug”. Book flaps, like film trailers, tend to highlight the shallowest aspects of a work. I plunged in determined to endure 221 pages of perfect but empty words about tripping with the wretched and the damned in the photogenic hellholes of the city. A long line of man boys from Baudelaire down have done this well, flashing their fantastic literary phalluses, exciting the bourgeois girls and boys with their reported transgressions. This would be the umpteenth iteration of the story.

Halfway into chapter two, Aki, the dead wife of the novel, appears, transmogrifying the slick vocabulary, injecting sincerity into the poseur’s too-perfect iPhone images.

“Aki was quiet all evening. She told him months later that she agreed to go (to a Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden) only because he’d been so enthusiastic. To her the man on stage was an old crooner whose time had a-changed...”

It becomes clear that while Thayil throws in some drug taking, MDMA, Ambien, meow, coke, heroin, hash, ash, with rich and poor, as he gives the reader a tour of the SeaLink, Mandlik Road, the suites of the Taj hotel, even the rigs off Bombay High, and extrapolates, in the manner of Thomas Friedman (insert eye roll), all sorts of truths from conversations with taxi drivers, this is, at its core, a prose poem to lost love. The worst kind of love, one cut short by death; one that lives on preserved in formalin, never decaying, always bitter, eternally sweet. It’s happening in a world collapsing on itself, where no place is safe, where “There’s nowhere to go and everywhere is the same”.

The author’s last novel, The Book of Chocolate Saints, was shredded on this page by a reviewer who thought it odd that a “thinly veiled fiction” about the Indian English poetry scene in the 1970s and ‘80s featured few women poets.
In response, Thayil ranted on Whatsapp, “I thought you were my friend”, and looked through me at the annual Jaipur jamboree. The life of a books page editor is full of mirth.

Low features a lot of men too -- junkies with mullets, African rappers who are also drug peddlers, Mumbai thugs with Romanian girlfriends, old Maharashtrian men who launch into lectures on “Colin Wilson’s ‘most brilliant’ The Outsider”, chauffeurs who keep their eyes on the road as the protagonist snorts lines of coke in the back seat, and politicians who own dance bars and are disdainful of “self hating Englishwallahs”. Mean men, nice men, boring men, tortured men, violent men, dumb men. But it is with the women that the novel comes alive -- Payal, a silver haired heiress, who meets Ullis/Ulysses, he who wanders and is lost, as he flees Delhi after this wife’s cremation, clutching a box of her ashes; Meena Kumari urf Tamanna, the bar dancer; and Aki, who lives on, conversing with Ullis incessantly, as the departed are wont to do. Her youth, her frailty, her perceptiveness, her neuroses, her familiar monthly psychosis, her rages, her insecurities, her career crises, her disinterest in a future motherhood, her empty childhood, her determination to die are gradually revealed. By the end, the reader knows this girl woman.

Is Low thinly veiled fiction too? Is Jeet Thayil, the author, the same as Dominic Ullis, the grieving “widow boy” who continues to text dead Aki, and argues with her when he’s drug addled?

“When he opens his eyes there is his wife, in the white moulding of the cornice. He is in the presence of a fully realized apparition. It will have to be humoured.” The conversation that follows recalls what happened on a flight back to Delhi from New York.
“They were to return to India and make a new beginning. There had been a trick of the light and momentarily he had lost her. He knows now what it was: A rehearsal.
“I thought you’d been forsaken. I mean, taken.”
“You kept saying the same thing, “Where’s Aki?” It crushed me, to be looked at and not seen. By my own husband.
Her voice rings splendidly through the room, from the ceiling to every sparkling corner. It fills the emptiness with bounce. …
“You were there and you were not there.”
“Exactly the question I’m asking myself. Are you here or not here?”
“I’m here. You’re the one who’s all over the place. But I’ve heard this happens to the unreliable narrator.”
I’m not unreliable, you are,” he says childishly, in what he hopes will be a devastating turn of phrase. It is not.
“I’m dead,” she says, “which makes me more reliable than I’ve ever been…”

Author Jeet Thayil
Author Jeet Thayil ( M Zhazo/Hindustan Times )

The exchange is both surreal and everyday; the stuff of bookish coupledom – the dredging up of old hurts and resentments, with references to literary devices thrown in – conducted, with the assistance of substances, across The Great Divide.

Payal and Aki, maybe even Tamanna, are fractured but self contained, abandoned children of dysfunctional families, unlike Dominic. His telephonic conversation with his mother, his father hovering around her but refusing to talk, is one of the novel’s few nearly-funny moments:“He’d become so adept at hiding the truth from her that he did so automatically. Besides she wanted to be lied to. She even expected it, particularly when it came to the big things. The least he could do was oblige. It was the duty of a dutiful son.”

Bombay-Mumbai with her yellowing buildings, her shape-shifting neighbourhoods, her awful disparities, her garbage-strewn sea is a character too. And over her looms not a Thackeray but Donald Trump: “He was everyman. Unlike other politicians, he was not ashamed to let his insecurity show, and the corruption and the lies (which means t the lies were a form of truth telling: he was saying. I’m the president. I lie, its part of the job)… Ullis... dreaded the day the old mobster finally left office. What would happen then? What could replace the addle brained f**k trinket’s daily episodes of reality television? It was too frightful to contemplate.”

This is “primo stuff” indeed.

Read more: Review: Oh! Those Parsis by Berjis Desai

Is Dominic Ullis Jeet Thayil? Is Dominic Thayil Jeet Ullis? Is Dominic Jeet? In the end it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this novel about grief and the inability to let go, about the awful finality of death, about the need to glean some meaning from our miserable lives, despite the knowledge that we are perishable and already past our sell-by dates even in moments when we feel gloriously alive, is honest and true.