Book Review: Jeet Thayil’s new novel ‘Low’ is a poem of nothingness

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April 26, 2020 2:01 AM

Reading Jeet Thayil’s latest novel Low, Johan Sebastian Bach’s iconic composition The Chaconne suddenly came to mind.

The novel soars when the narrative shifts to their lives.The novel soars when the narrative shifts to their lives.

There aren’t many Indian novels that narrate the life of a man who finds himself in sorrow after the death of his wife. There are works whose male protagonists, after being deserted by their wife or lover, fill the void by beginning another relation in which the past remains a dominant presence. But a novel built around the ashes of a young wife is rare.

Reading Jeet Thayil’s latest novel Low, Johan Sebastian Bach’s iconic composition The Chaconne suddenly came to mind. Legend goes that Bach composed it soon after the death of his wife and poured his grief into music. Over a century later, in a letter to Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms wrote about his predecessor’s art: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings.”

When I say that I found myself listening to Bach while reading Low, I don’t imply that it is a masterpiece. The novel has its flaws, but it captures grief with a penetrating intensity and authenticity.

After the death of his young wife Aki in Delhi, Dominic Ullis takes a flight to Bombay (the novel doesn’t call it Mumbai) to drown himself into its streets. He has no belongings, no luggage. He has left everything behind; his only companion is an urn containing her ashes. Thus begins a weekend of drugs and dope in which he meets many characters, both strangers and old friends.

Like Thayil’s previous novel The Book of Chocolate Saints, Low is also said to be an autobiographical work. Like the protagonist of his first novel, the DSC-award winner Narcopolis, Ullis is also a heroin addict; so is Thayil.

Both Ullis and Aki are melancholic characters. He is a heroin addict; she had been living with an acute death wish ever since early childhood, who believed that “every one of us lives with a death sentence”. Both were together for a mere four years before she ended her life.

The novel has two distinct strands. His wanderings through the heroin-induced haze in Bombay, and her recurring memory that pierces him. The novel soars when the narrative shifts to their lives. It somewhat loses its force when it begins describing his adventures with drugs.

His name is often pronounced or mistaken as Ulysses. It may not be without a metaphor, as it invokes a motif of the protagonist’s wanderings in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The novel begins with Ullis, but Aki’s image and personality soon comes to inform the narrative as we learn about a gifted and conflicted literary person who believed that nothingness and existentialism were 20th century phenomenon, and yet, ended her life because she was unable to face the nothingness. A woman who “preferred female singers, particularly non-white singers of dubious sexuality”.

‘Low’ was her favourite word; she used it in multiple ways. She had always been living “the low”. If he asked her what she’d been doing all day she would say, “I was low.” “As if it were a republic to which she had a multiple-entry twenty-year visa…As if her low country lay everywhere like a vast spiritual archipelago.”
Aki, to me, is the most endearing and strong woman character in Thayil’s fiction so far. She lives her torment with clarity and conviction, her sorrow never seeks any solace. Her fearlessness is the result of a simple deduction: “compared to her own fantasies of dying, the danger posed by the real world were irrelevant, banal, not worth worrying about”.

Thayil’s prose is precise and poignant. He is among the most innovative fiction writers of Indian English. Low further buttresses his reputation. Between grief and nothing I chose grief, wrote William Faulkner. Thayil’s novel is a poem of nothingness, an attempt by a lover to reclaim her memory and, thus, eventually himself. A man who never screams, his grief quietly percolates inside.

A conversation between Ullis and a woman looms over the narrative.

“He mentioned that you lost
your wife.”
“Lost implies a possibility of finding.”
“How did she expire?”
“Milk expires. My wife died.”
And yet there is a hope. In the last scene, on the return flight to Delhi, he goes to the aircraft’s bathroom, rolls up a note and snorts the last of his wife’s ashes. “It made him remorseful that he no longer had anything left of her. But she would live in his nasal passages and blood vessels and in each throbbing cell.”
After Aki’s death Ullis repeatedly listened to Schubert’s poignant composition Ave Maria, a Christian prayer that invokes Mother Mary at the hour of death. I read Low when the world is facing a lethal virus.

Book details

Jeet Thayil
Faber & Faber
Rs 599, Pp 320

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer & journalist

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