There’s a certain endearing quality to Jeet Thayil’s prose. You either fall hopelessly in love with it or you loathe it. When his debut novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, there were enough among the literati who couldn’t fathom what was it about one man’s opium odyssey that charmed critics. But then Thayil is a poet-writer who includes tragic heroes in his books, alcohol and drugs are an important part of his narrative, and you will never get tired of his prose.
His third novel, Low, is no different. Melancholy is the protagonist’s middle name and as Thayil takes us through the opium dens and alcohol taverns of Mumbai, he gives us a taste of what the city is all about in the present day. So the drug Meow Meow makes an appearance as does a nationalist politician who owns a dance bar and loathes ‘Englishwalas’. Be it the Mumbai of Narcopolis or the Mumbai of Low we know that Thayil will give you a glimpse of the city the way no contemporary Indian writer does. No one has mastered the art of connecting Mumbai and drugs so well as Thayil has. Low is a poignant tale of Dominic Ullis, who is recently bereaved and knows nothing better than to drown in the world of hash, cocaine, heroin and other such drugs.
The plot has little substance to offer, and one may think it is only about substance abuse. Yet, it is the beautiful writing and how Thayil allows grief to remain that leaves you completely lost in this novel.
Consider this: “From the crematorium, clutching the box and dressed in his mourning suit, he walked into… an enclosed courtyard surrounded by dead trees and broken concrete columns. He walked into the dust of the street… In half an hour he was at a reservation desk where he bought himself a ticket to the city he knew best, where oblivion was purchased cheaply and without consequence.” The heady account of the poet Ullis who must immerse his wife’s ashes forms the crux of this novel. Ullis heads straight from the crematorium to the airport and hops into a flight to Mumbai. It is the city of belonging for him and his young wife Aki, who hanged herself, having had the desire to die from a young age. It’s Ulliss’ weekend rendezvous in Bombay (yes, that’s what Thayil calls his city) that provides the reader a dull satisfaction – one that comes with having read a novel through which you feel the protagonist may not be on such a slippery slope after all. He has his heady days with drugs and alcoholism, run-ins with politicians and drug peddlers, shares his hash with the homeless as well as the uber-rich, converses with his dead wife and mourns in guilt, and yet stays alive to tell the tale.
The way two prominent political leaders of our times enter into the book through TV news footage (one has
been named and the other is an easy guess) – known for their extremism – has not gone unnoticed either.
It’s not hard to guess Thayil’s third novel is a chapter out of his own life. He may or may not be Ullis. But like him he is a poet-writer who lost his wife years ago, had a drug problem for years, and his fight with the Hepatitis virus is public knowledge. Low is said to be the final part of a trilogy after Narcopolis and The Book of Chocolate Saints’. Read it to know how there’s no real closure to grief, we just deal with it in our own different ways.