If you fancy a lost weekend of drink and drugs, Low, the third novel from poet and musician Jeet Thayil, is for you.
As a former addict, Thayil is well-placed to describe the highs on offer in every echelon of Bombay (as he calls it) society. From cocaine to mephedrone, and some heroin in between, there is little in the way of stimulant which goes untested by the novel’s coterie of users and suppliers.
Along with the highs come the inevitable lows. The protagonist, Dominic Ullis, is at the bottom of a very deep trough: his wife Aki has committed suicide at home in their apartment in Delhi. Maddened by grief, Ullis comes to Bombay to forget. A reformed junkie himself, there is an obvious path to oblivion.
We first meet Ullis as his flight lands into the city airport. He falls into conversation with Payal, the elegant, elderly lady sitting next to him. Hearing his surname, she immediately dubs him “Ulysses”, a not especially subtle signal that the ensuing story is a kind of Bombay Bloomsday.
Much like Joyce’s epic, Ullis spends the novel flitting from one area of the city to another, directed either by nostalgia, the whims of the characters he meets or the necessity of securing his next fix. His journey starts at a bar owned by his old friend Neel and progresses haphazardly through low-rent dives (one of which he recognises as “Hades”) to upscale shopping centers, smart hotels and the wealthy suburb of Alibag. Finally he encounters Neel at an early morning drug purchase and asks to be driven to the airport where, due to leaving his phone in the bar, he achieves a kind of salvation.
Ullis does not travel alone; his wife Aki accompanies him. Physically, she is evident in the form of her ashes, which Ullis carries, and as a ghost. She is also a mental burden, being the focus of his grief and a nagging notion that he could have prevented her death. Thayil reveals her backstory in a few chapters dedicated to her point of view. These explore her relationship with her father and her own battles with depression or, as she calls it, “the low”.
Aki’s story forms a stark contrast to the synthetic high of drugs and allows Thayil to unpick the mechanics of bereavement with unerring accuracy. One particular insight shows Ullis reassuring friends who hear his sad news, even though he is the one requiring solace:
He was beginning to realise that this was the true meaning of grief: comfort flowed in the reverse direction … There was no return gift.
At first glance, Low can appear somewhat self-indulgent. Ullis is an anti-hero firmly in the Hunter S Thompson mold and there is a vicarious thrill in watching his nihilistic pursuit of unadulterated hedonism. In the light of today’s worries about coronavirus, it is almost unseemly. Especially shocking is the scene where Payal, the lady on the plane, snorts Aki’s ashes in the belief they are some kind of drug.
Drill down deeper though and it becomes clear that Ullis’s peregrinations are mostly a channel for Thayil’s thoughts on topics ranging from climate change to rap. He reserves his sharpest barbs for the new political elite which promulgate “yogic oppression”, such as the corrupt Niranjan, who takes Ullis to a girlie bar. This is exactly the type of leader who “took care to denigrate Englishwallahs in public while enjoying a westernised lifestyle in private”, Ullis thinks, noting that Niranjan’s name means “pure” in English.
There are many other intriguing theories, too numerous to list, adroitly layered in true postmodern style between the tokes and hits. Rare is a novel which can address Nostradamus, Jean Genet and the pop group Garbage almost in the same breath. Thayil’s day-job is also evident in the joyful puns and wordplay which manifest in the text: only a poet could get that excited about the root and timbre of the brand name Mandrax. Possibly only a poet could present so many ideas in such a readable format.
With its collection of flawed characters facing genuine conflict, Low presents a real reflection of humanity—it’s one hell of a trip.