Zadie Smith writes in White Teeth: "You are never stronger…than when you land on the other side of despair". In Low, Jeet Thayil’s latest novelisation of a part of his life, this thought is put to the test, both as a commitment to memory, and as the substantive effect of a piece of literature on its reader.
Dominic Ullis returns to his house in Delhi's Defence Colony, where his wife committed suicide. Unable to reconcile with the familiarity of their home, Ullis leaves town in haste, with the last remains of his wife, Aki, in hand.
"In half an hour he was at a reservation desk where he bought himself a ticket to the city he knew best, where oblivion could be purchased cheaply and without consequence", Thayil writes. With Ullis, Thayil returns to the city of Mumbai, the drug dens of which made up for a large part of his first novel Narcopolis. Through Low, Thayil takes us on a darkly comic, irreverent journey of processing grief and loss.
Told in the third person, Low attempts to articulate the impossibility of processing grief in any certain manner or form. Ullis, a tragically self-aware widower, blames himself for pushing his wife to take her life. ‘Low’ is a word she often used to vaguely define the indeterminate amount of depression and unhappiness she felt. Through flashbacks, Thayil establishes the brittle, yet wildly romantic foundation of the relationship. "We’ll help each other stay alive," Ullis tells Aki after she informs him of having come down with "a heavy case of the low". The present, however, is unromantically revealing and "where his wife was ashes in a box clutched in his unworthy hands. It was intolerable".
Thayil’s commentary as a narrator often gives the impression of two books within one. In one, he seems to be taking this journey, while in the other, he is trying to locate it in his conscience, with the intention to reprimand the protagonist for all that births regret.
After Ullis arrives in Mumbai, he bumps into drug-addicts, dancers, politicians, and ends up at parties, and in one instance on a boat ride from Alibag to South Bombay. All this, while Ullis gets high on cocaine (the new Meow Meow) reflects and reminiscences dimly about Aki. There is a fair amount of accreditation to the role people around him play in helping him process this grief, as if inured to its permanence. Is that what addiction does to a person?
Low is fairly tragicomic. It persists upon the mundane, the egotistical wrapping of time around the bends of loss, in the sense that Ullis, however dejected or guilty he feels, must respond to the inevitability of ‘what next’, to which he often ends up saying ‘why not’, without thinking twice. So, he hops from one situation to another, ‘doing lines of powder’ in one place, to discussing politics with a conservative — all without will or want. There is nothing proprietary about grief, except the lengths to which it pierces you, or questions it leaves you with.
Low is fairly current, in that its political references are recent. From the MeToo movement, to Trump, from the planned statue of Shivaji in Mumbai to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Yoga theatrics, Thayil melds the farce of the bigger picture to the tragedy of a personal one. In a drug-addled mix-up, Payal, an heiress, mistakes Aki’s ashes for powder. Incredibly, the writer naturalises this calamity, in a way that only Thayil can. On the boat, Thayil declares Ullis undeserving of forgiveness, as his "self-destruction was assured". It is as troubling a thought as it is impossible to fault Ullis for "not being there", because he is someone who acts in the moment, and reflects later. "He was facing the wrong way. He was turned towards the past", Thayil writes.
An overwhelming moment presents itself on the jetty, when, to the consternation of those accompanying him, Ullis decides to suddenly perform the last rites of Aki. Even at this juncture, Ullis’ despair fails to translate into anything cogent or cohesive. Even at this significant bend of the journey, Thayil refuses to douse the candle or dim the lights for dramatisation. "Just say something," a woman frustratingly tells Ullis, before visibly giving up.
Low might be one of the funniest books on grief that I’ve read, if that is even a thing. In a way, Jeet Thayil evidences how getting through loss is a personal journey, encrusted by the tokenism of concern or lack thereof. Also, Low is a different route, in as most Indians are usually mobbed by relatives, friends and others to the extent that the process, while still personal, becomes an exhibit. Solitude, in this country at least, is a privilege not many can enjoy or afford. While there is scope for comic reflection in that space, Thayil is certainly more adept on this side of the fence, where mobility and space, at least in a tactile sense are unrestricted.
Through Low, Thayil finds fresh territory to erect an effigy of his past, only this time, it crackles and glows playfully, as it slowly turns to ghostly ash.
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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2020 09:27:22 IST