In 2015, when I was sharing a 100 sq. ft. room and a twin bed with a flatmate in Bombay, she taught me the yes game.
“You just don’t say no,” she explained. In my memory, this conversation happened over rum and cokes at Yacht, a greasy bar by the sea, around eleven in the morning. One of us had suggested going into our tiny ramshackle nonprofit office a little late, or just whenever we felt like it. “No matter how crazy or scary the idea is, you don’t say no. You keep yourself open to all of it.”
Over the next few weeks, I dutifully played this game. It was my only conviction; I was in the midst of a broken relationship and an unstable career. It turned my feeling of powerlessness into something thrilling in its anger, and its joy. I followed the instruction into all sorts of trouble, but it didn’t strike me at the time of that conversation that we were already, in a sense, living the yes game—that it already defined the hunger and the carelessness that hung over our entire existence in Bombay, our lack of interest in planning for a future we couldn’t be sure of.
Low, Jeet Thayil’s new novel, is an experiment in the yes game. Thayil has always been the embodiment of this Bombay for me; alongside him, I came of age in a Bombay where I believed every action had to bring immediate pleasure, or pain, or satisfaction, any feeling at all. Low is a document of one long drug-addled weekend, a tireless search for pleasure. The narrator, Dominic Ullis, arrives in the city he grew up in after time away in New York and Delhi, clutching his wife’s ashes, determined to numb his grief in “the city he knew best, where oblivion was purchased cheaply and without consequence.”
So begins a string of interactions with the streets of Bombay and the other pleasure-seekers that fill it. Each encounter randomly drifts to the next, connected only by Dominic’s dogged quest for substances. In a dream sequence, he floats through the city on a series of long taxi rides, coming to every now and then only to ingest more cocaine and heroin. Periodically he seeks out his old dealer for more; he wakes up in unfamiliar houses where strangers crouch, fishing mephedrone out of crevices. “He would adopt a bit of practical advice from the handbook of Jean Rhys: drink, drink, drink. As soon as you sober up, you start again,” Dominic vows. “This was his new mission, and he pursued it devotedly.”
Back in Delhi, before all this, Dominic had come home one day to find his wife, Aki, hanging from the ceiling fan. Ever since she was a child, she once told him, she had wanted to die; most of her life she spent in what she called the low. “Once he had suggested they take a weekend trip out of Delhi,” he recalled, “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’s drug trips are interspersed with early memories of his marriage with Aki, and sometimes, dreamlike conversations he imagines having with her now. “If you quit drugs and alcohol where will it leave you?” the apparition of Aki asks him at one point. “With a God-shaped hole in your heart.”
In 2015, at a panel discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Thayil himself used the exact same phrase—except instead of drugs and alcohol, he was talking about what would happen to us without poetry. Poetry is the other powerful drug in Thayil’s stories. It brings his characters to similar highs and lows; it throws light on their wasted or salvaged lives, on the heartaches and numbness that infects them. Dominic’s long, shaky but unbroken drug trip is also a kind of ode to his wife. “His crime was beyond forgiveness,” Dominic realizes. “His wife was dead because of his fatal inaction.” This guilt is the backdrop of all his trips and nods. It’s the only justification he needs for playing the yes-game. I don’t see why not, he says, over and over, to every suggestion made by any of his several companions. This is how hours are passed in his Bombay haze of grief; numbly, for no particular reason.
In Jeet Thayil’s stories, in lieu of what we call gyaan in Hindi (“wisdom” literally, intellectualization colloquially) is heightened physical sensation—the only real proof we have, in the absence of control over our fate, that we’re alive. More than any specific movement of plot or social critique, it’s the physical sensations in Thayil’s hazy, heartbroken Bombay that move the story forward: the smell of boiled milk, sewage, and flowers that Dominic forever associates with the city; the kisses of strangers on another stranger’s sofa and the trademark green chutney spread on Bombay sandwiches; the night under his high that “glimmered like velvet among the angels and ghosts.” These have always been the details that bring Thayil’s stories to life; they are bright and searing and human, like the suffocating Bombay summers or Bombay monsoons, oppressive heat and humidity and obstacles.
Narcopolis and The Book of Chocolate Saints, Thayil’s first two novels, are also largely propelled, in a sense, by a series of simple I don’t see why nots, characters always looking for the next hit. They show us the grimy Bombay of the 1970s: dense and crowded and almost cozy, dangerously cheap and highly accessible. But Low is set after the explosion of growth at the outskirts of the city, in a sprawling new Bombay. Most people Dominic meets are absurdly wealthy; they more often while away their hours by pool-sides and in mansions than on the pavement.
But even here, in the highest of society, Jeet Thayil’s filthy, shameless Bombay can be felt. Despite the change of scenery, the familiar hedonism recalls the opium-shrouded haze of Shuklaji Street where Narcopolis stewed, and where Dominic Ullis—the rarely named narrator of that book—first appeared, spending his days with Dimple smoking pipes and having a very different series of shiny, fuzzy dreams at Rashid’s opium shop.
I spent so much time in the mindset of Thayil’s Shuklaji Street when I lived in Bombay, relishing and surrendering to the complete lack of control I felt over my life: doggedly pursuing the next hit, of fear or exhaustion or discomfort. Once, during the weeks when I was playing the yes-game, I actually went looking for it, in the middle of the night. I walked amidst the dense commerce of Grant Road chawls, propelled by the heat, squatting down next to chai vendors periodically to drink tea out of tiny plastic cups. I watched women in heavy georgette saris and jewelry get into taxis, heading up north to the dance bars where they worked, bars that had relocated to the suburbs after the crackdown fifteen years prior. I watched prostitutes leaning out of their windows, smoking and chatting, their laundry hanging out to dry on the grill.
In The Book of Chocolate Saints, in a different chawl, women also hung out of their windows, toasting their chai and whiskey over the courtyard, chatting with one of the many leftist poets the city had produced. These small, sharp pleasures are Jeet Thayil’s Bombay, and my own: I keep coming back to this picture, my single constant truth. I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, Dominic says at the start of his first story, the city of opium and the drug Bombay.
Thayil includes Shuklaji Street very briefly in Low, if only to tell us how much time has passed since Narcopolis and The Book of Chocolate Saints. Decades later, the New India of Donald Trump and Narendra Modi looms over the story. The “orange president” now provides an odd, manic sense of companionship to the heartbroken narrator, who is happy to have an institutionalized reason for the world losing its mind—he’s been validated in believing that everything always was, indeed, full of rot and lies. The sociopolitical commentary in Low is more obvious than it was in Thayil’s previous novels. Narcopolis took place almost entirely in the gloriously, shitty, eternally rent-controlled South Bombay, while Low takes place in the expansive, ostentatious suburbs, amidst luxury apartment buildings and obvious inequality. It is always the bouncers, the taxi drivers, the housekeepers and butlers, the workers living in tents on the pavement, who show Dominic the most camaraderie, looking away or paying attention at exactly the right times, when he is getting high—this, too, is Thayil’s Bombay, where everyone is a compatriot in the project of self-obliteration.
But remaining constant across this sweeping history is the familiar Jeet Thayil aura of excess and waste, and an exploration of what it is to live in such an atmosphere. His commentary on capitalism and climate change is met with—often overshadowed by—what he has always been best at, which is taking us into the most intense of subjective human experiences. He doesn’t try to “solve” or “unpack” widespread problems like depression or addiction, so much as describe what it is to simply live with them, in a city where I don’t see why not seems the most honest approach. What other reason can we really offer for anything?
We were all broken in Bombay; life there was always manic, unstable. It was a place to be broken—it was also a place for us to heal, by continuing to be broken. The city does not impose, the way New York today often does, the urgency to be fixed, to get better, get it together. Free of this pressure, Dominic takes his time healing in his city, and finally arriving at what seems to be the gentle point of the story, which is—after the chasing and the demolition of pain and pleasure—some sort of quest to forgive; first his wife, but then, finally and exhaustedly, himself.