Malaise in Mumbai

Malaise in Mumbai

Jeet Thayil’s new book is a psychedelic blend of memories, hallucinations and misadventures in the maximum city.

Low

Low by Jeet Thayil reads like a drug-riddled fever dream. After the death of his young wife Aki, Dom Ullis escapes to Bombay (as he refers to it, as opposed to Mumbai), heavy with grief and the weight of his wife’s ashes.

After all, Mumbai was the city that “he knew best, where oblivion could be purchased cheaply without consequence.”

Dom Ullis’ grief is palpable and omniscient; even his highs are populated by memories with Aki, of hallucinations of her. Cheap thrills and distractions seem like the only way he can survive without crumbling. While heroin, cocaine, alcohol and sleeping pills are old friends, his misadventures on his weekend-long bender in Mumbai are punctuated by the many friends he makes during the time — a silver-haired heiress named Payal and her guests, several socialites, drivers, Danny his drug-peddler, Meena Kumari or Tammanah the bar dancer, Niranjan or Ninja the politician and businessman and even a few junkies he meets on the street. To all those he befriends, Dom is nothing but amiable and displays a rather childlike need to stay in their company.

It is evident that during his bender in Mumbai, Dom is waiting to be swept away like a plastic bag in a gust of wind or a gust of distractions. In the background of the protagonist’s grief, these characters are often oxymoronic in their actions and mannerisms and purely due to this contrast, they make for welcome, humorous breaks in the self-pitying, grief-stricken narrative that is the rest of the book.

Fascination with death

Other welcome breaks of intensity come from Dom’s early interactions with Aki in New York.

Aki is an interesting character; she displays an Emily Dickinsonesque fascination with death on their first date — “as I grow older, I think about it more and more. I want to die,” she says. It is certain that she is a tortured soul and goes through long episodes of what she calls the ‘low’ — periods of extreme physical and mental exhaustion — the greatest constant of her life. Dom is enveloped in this low as he ventures to Mumbai and explores innovative ways to numb himself.  

Like the protagonists of Thayil’s other books, Dom is a poet who courts drugs, with a borderline self-destructive streak. Perhaps what makes ‘Low’ more heartfelt is, Dom seems a sort of self-portrait of Thayil, both poets who have had a past with drugs, both widowers and both then left in melancholy and grief.

Payal often calls Ullis, Ulysses, and this is perhaps the most insightful metaphor in the book. In his poem Ithaka, Constantine Cavafy says: “As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.”

Our Ullis has a bit of that and some more. On his weekend-long bender in Mumbai, he is scared of returning to his Aki-less home in Delhi as he is not sure what will become of him. At the end of the book, however, heavy with malaise and new wisdom, he makes a discovery. And like in the story of Ulysses, the journey to Ithaka turns out to be far more interesting than the actual culmination.