Early in Jeet Thayil’s Low – an extraordinary black comedy about loss, numbing grief and a drug-haze vision of the end of the world – we learn about the event that fuels the novel. Dominic Ullis has returned to his home in Delhi’s Defence Colony to find his wife Aki dead, a suicide. Ullis calls her mother, they take Aki’s body to the hospital, she is moved from emergency room to morgue. And then,
“All night the panic sat like a heavy bear on his chest. The bear stayed for many days and nights, until it gave way to exhaustion and blessed amnesia.”
That word, “panic”, might at first seem an odd fit here – you expect to see it used when there is still a chance of fixing or escaping a very bad situation. But Thayil is one of the most precise wordsmiths around, and I thought the description was pitch-perfect. Almost anyone who has been in comparable straits – the untimely death of someone central to your life; a busy, commonplace day being suddenly and definitively paralysed – will know the feeling of being so unhinged that “grief” as one conventionally thinks of it takes a back-seat for now – instead, one’s mind (paralysed but also more alert than it has ever been) is racing to process what has happened, what will have to be dealt with in the coming hours and days, what life might look like in the future given this profound absence.
Panic is the sum of those feelings, though of course the more expected descriptors will appear later in the book. For now, here is Ullis, shaken by the robotic indifference of the priests at the crematorium, unwilling to go back home, heading straight to the airport and to Bombay, carrying the box with Aki’s ashes in it. He has no plan, but this is the city where he had spent many years as an addict (and where Aki had also grown up and lived, before they met).
“The only thing possible now was oblivion, with the aid of certain powdery or liquid substances […] He was all out of resources, inner and outer. He needed distraction and fortification.”
Low thus becomes an odyssey of sorts – a woman Ullis encounters even calls him Ulysses, but the book doesn’t put this to pretentious use, it is turned into an ironic joke (“…as if she were presenting a Homeric hero rather than a shoeless grief-stricken stranger half out of his mind on Chinese heroin”). With little sense of the passage of time, he moves from five-star hotel suite to high-society party to a seedy bar named Jungle Beats. There are meetings with drug dealers, a hyper-nationalistic politician, a dancer named Meena Kumari, a couple of junkies on a sidewalk. A night-time speedboat ride from Alibag to south Bombay initially feels like a version of the journey from Hades to earth (or the other way round), but also yields an unexpectedly moving funeral rite.
Interspersed with these events are short flashbacks to his life with Aki: their meeting in a university library in New York, his discovery of her melancholia, the “low”, which she could always access, the argument they had in a car a few hours before her death. There are memories from before he knew her, such as a Mandrax buzz – “nothing less than liberation from a dictatorship of the senses” – experienced with friends along the walkway to Haji Ali. He even speaks to Aki’s ghost, who appears in the form of a face embedded in the ceiling above his bed. Uncharacteristically but usefully, she advises him to continue taking heroin. (He obliges, of course.)
And through all this, there is a heightened understanding of the true nature of grief:
“Comfort flowed in the reverse direction. Outwards it went from the grief-stricken, in ever-widening circles, first to close relatives and friends and neighbours, then to distant relations, acquaintances, foes, the unknown faces that floated up out of the dark. Comfort travelled in one direction only. There was no return gift.”
Ullis realises his duty is to reassure his many “comforters” – and savagely true as this observation is, Thayil also puts it in the service of dry humour, with passages like the one when Ullis finds himself in a car with strangers who are making sympathetic sounds: “He hoped [the silence] would continue all the way to the waterfront and he wouldn’t have to console people he didn’t know.” On another occasion, he hears himself saying “There, there. Never mind” in response to someone who has burst into tears on thinking about what he must be going through.
Low is – like Thayil’s first novel Narcopolis – very much a Bombay book, and it somehow feels apt that this most vibrant of cities should be the setting for a narrative about death and stasis, as well as reflections on a coming apocalypse. If Aki was always in danger of submerging into her low, the city is sinking too, or so Ullis believes. He is fascinated by the antics of the American president, an essential source of entertainment whose very existence seems like reassurance that the end really is near, that the whole world will soon go the way of Aki.
But however depressing its subject matter, this is far from a downbeat or dour work – largely because Ullis’s condition has created an almost palpable attentiveness. As he moves through a world that Aki is no longer part of, a world where people have dinner parties and talk politics and snort coke and watch music videos on their phones as if everything is still sane and ordered, he thinks:
“Was this what happened to someone who came home one day to find his wife hanging from a ceiling fan, who tried to breathe life into her lungs and failed? Did such a person begin to see the living as brief and wondrous apparitions, each worthy of affection and attention, whether a chance acquaintance on an airplane, or a stranger dancing in a bar, or an endearingly incompetent criminal president?”
That may seem like a version of the cliché about knowledge of death making life seem more precious and immediate, but Low doesn’t reach for inspirational homilies – it is concerned, foremost, with giving us the state of a very specific mind.
There is a reductive view that art must be affirmative, that even the darkest novel or film must offer some light or hope at the end. This book has a very moving ending, one where Ullis achieves a kind of redemption, an almost Capra-esque reminder that all of us are useful in so many little ways. And yet the incident itself is minor and random; it may be “feel-good” in its way, but it won’t mess things up for the determinedly nihilistic reader.
Capacious and self-aware
Formally, the bulk of Low is in the third-person subjective – we are tied to Ullis’s consciousness, we learn what he thinks and feels and sees. And yet, every once in a while, starting with an early paragraph where we see Ullis through the gaze of a Bombay cabbie (“It was obvious the man needed a cure from whatever ailment he was suffering from. Gutka was reliable…”), there are digressions into other people’s thoughts and experiences. The longest of these are chapter-length: in one, we are in the company of an heiress named Payal, living in the Taj hotel, watching TV news as the Indian prime minister showily practices yoga.
Later, in a key passage, a woman named Brinda asks Ullis to say a small eulogy for his wife. “You don’t have to write a book. Say something about the five stages of grief…” He reflects on the laughable tidiness of the five-stages categorisation – “There was no timeline, no demarcation […] you moved back and forth like a time tourist, at sea without a compass” – and then comes this meta-observation:
“Besides, Brinda, I am writing a book.”
The line is not spoken aloud, it is a stage-whisper directed only at the reader. It is a reminder that Ullis is like Thayil – a writer, poet and editor, and this casts new light on the narrative. If this is a book Ullis is writing (or thinking), the multiple perspectives are his invention, his version of the inner lives of people he meets. And with one chapter offering us the viewpoint of Aki’s ghost, reminiscing about the past, even talking about her husband with a colleague, I felt a slight trepidation; I thought of the much-discussed trope of male artists using dead or victimised women as a pretext for a male protagonist’s voyage of discovery.
But Low is too capacious and self-aware to fit into such a scheme. The idea that the dead are absorbed into the living is a basic theme of this story, hilariously literalised in a passage where (spoiler alert, sort of) one of Ullis’s new acquaintances thinks the “powder” in his box might be coke (which leads up to the magnificent sentence “Aki would not have minded being snorted in error by the kleptomaniacal Payal”). But the book is also dead serious and conscientious about the implications of this theme. It knows about the responsibility of the living to the dead (“Everything she was, the breath and breadth of her life, now had passed to him”), and knows how this can turn into narcissism and narrative-appropriation. In a painfully lucid passage, Ullis recognises that he had conjured Aki’s ghost because he had needed to see her; he had put words in her mouth; perhaps, by implication, every narrative he had created about what happened between them was inadequate.
“I’m dead,” her ghost tells him during one of their conversations, “which makes me more reliable than I’ve ever been.” This is true of all our relationships with those who have passed on and who now exist only in our remembrances. The best we can do is to be open to the possibility that we never fully knew them.
Recreating someone (else)
Writing about such a personal book at any length requires making admissions. For instance: I have experience of the loss and grief described here, as well as what Aki means about the “low” being the constant in her life; I don’t have first-hand experience of mind-altering drugs, so I can only say that the descriptions of Ullis’s hallucinations felt authentic to me.
So I also need to mention this: knowing that Low is autofiction – its roots being the tragic death of Thayil’s wife Shakti Bhatt in 2007 – affected my initial reading experience. Some details – politics in the publishing world, Aki’s hula-hooping, a rushed funeral – felt too close for comfort and reminded me of little conversations, with Shakti, with those who knew her, from over a decade ago.
And yet, soon enough the book became its own beast, the richness of the reading experience separated from knowledge of the event that had inspired it. I never stopped imagining Thayil’s face and hearing his voice – expressive and deadpan at the same time – as I read about Ullis, but it became easier to see the book on its own terms: as an account of a crazy trip, an exercise in the use of humour to poke death and oblivion in the eye, a story about how we are always putting things off for later, and about what it means to be a writer (or a husband) trying to recreate someone else’s life.
Low knows that life can be full of dull, all-pervading sadness (“Her low country lay everywhere like a vast spiritual archipelago”), but that this sadness coexists with comical pratfalls (arriving in Bombay, Ullis trips over a stack of coconuts, almost dropping the box of ashes; at airport security on his way back, it happens again). This book is a demonstration that a story about pain and catastrophe (at a personal and planetary level) can be startlingly alive, expressive and funny in the telling.
Low, Jeet Thayil, Faber & Faber.