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The Art of Losing

N Kalyan Raman

Low a novel by Jeet Thayil, Faber & Faber, 2020

It’s not by accident that Dominic Ullis, the name of the protagonist in Low, is misheard as Ulysses on the very first page of the novel, by a fellow passenger on his flight to Bombay. His journey to Bombay and back does indeed resemble the journey of heartsick Leopold Bloom from the more famous Ulysses through a single day and night in Dublin. It also reminds us of the driving rhythm and wail of Bob Dylan’s Walkin’ (‘I’m walkin’/ through streets that are dead / I’m walkin’ / with you in my head’). The figure of a lonely, grieving man, adrift in strange places, is not an unfamiliar one in modern literature.

Ullis is a poet in his mid-forties, who is going through a fallow period. His wife Aki, younger than him by around twenty years, has taken her own life in their apartment in Delhi after a brief quarrel with her husband. Devastated by grief and unwilling to face Aki’s residual presence at home, the poet flees to Bombay, the only city he knows well, and plunges back for two nights and a day, the duration of his trip, into a drug habit that had consumed his youth and which he had abandoned for the love of Aki. Each of the novel’s fourteen chapters holds a revelation about Aki, Dominic or the relationship between them. While Dominic struggles to cope with his loss, we are steered through many nooks and corners of Bombay, where the denizens of Bombay, rich and poor alike, are ‘doing their sport’. In the background we hear the ever-present hum of the world, stalking the characters through television sets and cellphones, laid low by the impending doom of climate change and by ugly, psychopathic liars who have ascended the thrones of power.

The novel’s portrait of Aki as a young, vulnerable woman in the present-day is vivid and not unfamiliar. As a young child, she feels abandoned after her parents’ separation. Growing up in a relative’s house, she finds promise and takes solace in Wonderful Life, a pop song, only to discover later that the singer was being ironic and bitter. As a young woman, she is alive to the looming devastation of climate change, firm in her conviction that she and her husband, along with the rest of the world, have only twelve years left to live. She is subdued and passive in her love, does not children of her own, and is suicidal underneath it all (“Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to die.”). She is a citizen of the country of the low.

If he asked her where she’d been, she would say, ‘I’ve been low.’ As if it were a republic to which she had a multiple-entry twenty-year visa...Once he had suggested that they take a weekend trip out of Delhi and she’d said, ‘I can’t do it tomorrow. I’m going to the low.’ As if her low country lay everywhere, like a vast spiritual archipelago.

Dominic is shown as tentative, as befits a man recovering from long years of drug addiction, and sharp, a poet of dormant ambition. He is, of course, fascinated and fazed by the buried tumult in his young wife and laid waste by her loss. Seeking a return to a familiar self in a familiar city, he trundles through his brief journey with a nonchalant (or resigned) ‘I don’t see why not.’ Unlike Aki, he is backed by supportive parents in a distant city, but not necessarily to good effect. When he is exhorted by his mother to hold himself together and ‘show the world what you are made of’, Dominic replies without missing a beat, ‘ I am made of clay, in particular my feet and heart.’

The narrative of their relationship is a series of conversations both in the past and the present, where Aki is memory, dream and a spectral companion resident in Dominic’s head. She is also present in the box of ashes that is Dominic’s burden, waiting to be let go in fast water. What we learn (yet again!) from these conversations, both real and not, is that even in love, we are alone in our own low countries, laid low by anxiety and damage, and it’s love that must help ‘keep each other alive’. Even when Dominic falls into the drug-addled abyss of his past to cope with Aki’s sudden departure, it’s the memory of his exchanges with her that restores him in the end to the living world. Thayil’s accounts of these conversations are insightful, moving and poignant:

Communication loves concealment. Speech leaves the mouth with a set of known concealments. It falls upon the ear with a set of unknown ones.

Low is Jeet Thayil’s third novel, after Narcopolis (2012) and The Book of Chocolate Saints (2017). As in the first two works, the author’s intimate knowledge of Bombay – certain parts of it, anyway – is on full display here. Dominic’s sojourn includes a drug party with young professionals in Bandra, poolside drinks with a hotelier’s heiress in the iconic Tajmahal Hotel, a dinner party at noon with gangsters somewhere near Walkeshwar, a sit-down dinner in a mansion in Alibag, late night drinking (and snorting) with a politician in a shady dance bar in Tardeo, chasing heroin from silver foil at sunrise on an anonymous pavement in South Bombay in the company of a homeless lad called Sonu, followed by breakfast in an empty restaurant in Bandra, before he leaves for the airport for his return trip. Bombay has been done and one, in fiction and non-fiction, in memoirs and films. In this novel as elsewhere it feels like there will never be an end to writing about Bombay.

The repertoire of intoxicants ingested on this weekend trip is understandably limited: a ‘bag’ of low-grade Chinese powder, fondly called meow, a bottle of Jim Beam, two packets of cocaine and a gram of h-dash-in, the Nigerian drug dealer’s ludicrous code-word for heroin.

A poet through most of his career who turned to writing fiction only a decade ago, Thayil writes with a relish for the language and excels in descriptive prose. Whether it is contemplation of the waterscape during a taxi ride on the Sea Link, or a glimpse of the barricaded Gateway of India from a suite high up in the Taj or the boat journey from Alibag to the city (“he looked up at the sky, alert for augury and fray”), the text is never less than absorbing. A set-piece describing a visit by the couple to Aki’s seventy-year-old father’s home in a distant tree-shaded suburb, preceded by prayers at a Hanuman temple in the neighbourhood (“...the front pillars covered with brass bells, the uvulas slack like knotted tongues”), is worth a particular mention. Dominic’s unfailing eye for the absurd, in himself as well as in the environment, leavens the narrative with dollops of black humour, especially in the Bombay scenes.

The novel is the story of a couple laid low from within and without by their own pasts and the trajectory of the world in which they live. It’s an exploration of grief and the possibility of redemption under these conditions. The novel ends with Dominic striking an optimistic note, on remembering what Aki had told him, ‘He who saves one life saves the world entire.’ Well, sunny or not, it’s at least a reason to love again, and that should be enough for now.

Review published in OPEN magazine on February 7, 2020


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