A crucible of ideas
Jeet Thayil’s forthcoming book, ‘Names of the Women’, will be released in April 2021. It is based on the New Testament, in Holy Bible, and is narrated through the perspective of women-- Mary Magdalene, Herodias, Salomé, Martha of Bethany, Mary of Bethany, Joanna, Assia and Lydia, among other figures--, who have either been voiceless or have been erased. Each chapter of this book is dedicated to one such female character as Thayil argues; they have either been suppressed or erased in different versions of the Bible, just because all these stories were written by men. David Godwin, a literary agent, humorously calls it a book on “religious drug.” The inspiration for the book comes from the daily Bible recitation service that Thayil’s grandmother used to conduct at home. She would recite verses from the Bible from her memory and it continued for almost two hours. As a Syrian Christian, all these verses remained as living texts in Thayil’s conscious as a child. When he turned 14 he took to reading the Bible on his own. He was drawn to the chapters on Job and Solomon, which had poetic elements. At the age of 14, when he read the Baudelaire poem “Le Léthé,” he has decided to become a poet.
In the latter half, which is the New Testament, Thayil comes across an instance when Jesus Christ is surrounded by a mob, an ill woman whose name is not mentioned in the Bible, grabs his robe with belief that she will be cured of illness. Her desperation and her belief with a reason transform her. This character is one among the chapters of Thayil’s forthcoming book.
A statement on the David Godwin Associates' website reads, 'The novel begins with Jesus Christ on the cross and throughout 24 chapters the book introduces Mary Magdalene, Herodias, Salomé, Martha of Bethany, Mary of Bethany, Joanna, Assia and Lydia, among other figures, both fictional and historical, and it ends with the voice of Mary, mother of Christ.'
(1) Jeet Thayil with Mother, Ammu George. (2) Thayil's Father, T.J.S. George
Thayil’s recently released novel Low marks the final instalment of a trilogy which is set in Bombay that began with Narcopolis in 2012, followed by The Book of Chocolate Saints--the chocolate here refers to the skin-tone--and which took six years to finish. The main protagonist in the ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’, Francis Newton Xavier, is a fictional poet from the real Bombay school of the 1970s and 80s. The third in the series Low published by Faber & Faber was published on February 25, 2020. The novel is set in modern Bombay, but Thayil insists, that Low is not completely based on drugs, but uses ‘drugs’ as a narrative device -- a lens to view society. His earlier novel in the series Narcopolis too is based on a similar concept. Thayil was yearning to write Low for 12 years. It has all the characteristics of his earlier works. Low was done in eight months, the fastest novel Thayil has written so far, while his upcoming literary work which is based on the women in the Holy Bible has been completed in nine months.
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Told from the perspective of Black humour or Black Comedy, the novel Low is based in the city of Bombay or Mumbai—a city with shades of constant change. The novel opens with Dominic Ullis’ returning to his home in Delhi’s Defence Colony, where he is shocked to find his wife Aki dead, a suicide.
With Aki’s image, the narrative attempts to throw some structure of sense around it, as events unfold. Aki is portrayed as a strong woman, tormented with intelligibility and fervour, insecurities and career crisis and unhappy childhood. Finally, she succumbs to the fantasies of death. This forms the crux of the novel. Through Aki, the author captures human grief with a penetrating spike and authenticity. For grief, there are no stages, Thayil says and that “Everything bleeds into everything else... Grief, like time, is circulating.”
Ullis is completely shattered. The novel takes a serious turn when he decides not to immerse his wife’s ashes in Delhi as there was no clean water body. He then decides to make an impromptu journey to Mumbai with the ashes of his beloved one. For this journey, he takes no luggage or possessions, not even a pair of underwear, except the “cuboid box filled with textured whitish ash.” But this journey leads Dominic into a drug-stimulated jaunt.
Surreptitiously placing drugs in the dark, the novel focuses on the dark and seamy shades of Bombay that features myriad characters to the narration. One finds junkies, African rappers who work as drug carriers, Mumbai ruffians, old Maharashtrian men who turned to lecturers that underline the sub-plot.
At times the novel loses its control while describing Ullis’s adventure with drugs where the reader is taken on a tour of Bombay by a gutka chewing (mixture of tobacco, crushed betel nut and spices) cab driver. The driver here is a reflection of a fractured mind who takes Ullis, the passenger, with no luggage, through the tollbooths leading to the SeaLink, South of Bombay, Statue of Shivaji and horse in the middle of Arabian Sea, Bandra, Carter Road, Mandlik Road, the suites of the Taj hotel, and even the array off Bombay. Beyond the realm of corporeal, Ullis sees nothing and embraces Bombay’s nothingness. Thayil uses “drugs” as a lens to view society. The Bombay city, Ullis went in search for, leads him to the reality, that being the land of the marginalised, addicted and insane people, who are considered by the society as misfits and are treated as the lowest of the low in social strata—of those who have nothing to lose except humanity of “blood-black humanoids with the taste of terror and sex.”
As for the people living in slums, Thayil depicts how they take pride during a natural calamity like floods, in their resilience and tolerance claiming that the hand of God is upon them. Their belief is so great that they can overcome the calamity and so they move to a nearby place to reconstruct their life again. When Ullis enters this bliss, he feels he has reached a state of oblivion. Thayil’s relation with Bombay is that of love-hate. He says Bombay has a blended smell of both sewage and roses, incense and gutter. At one point he writes the city “lays everywhere like a vast spiritual archipelago. The low was most dangerous when it coincided with her periods, the physically torturous episodes that stretched sometimes for a week.” The word “low” Ullis’s wife, Aki’s favourite word.
In postmodern style, the unreliable narration takes its turn when nostalgia fortifies Ullis vicious feeling of addiction with a new drug, Meow Meow that carries him deep into a state of low, to “negotiate the byways and highways of meow.” In a recent interview to VICE Thayil reveals that both the author and the character exploit heroin to get a closer phantasm of the late wife. In the novel, the narcotic substance is used as a medium through which the protagonist has a conversation with his late wife, Aki’s ghost. She says “I’m dead,” which takes the narration back to a more reliable and well-grounded scheme.
There are several lighter moments in Low. In the backdrop of drugs, Thayil manipulates Ullis state of oblivion to depict the pitfalls, through a satirical demonstration of Donald Trump, where the “President was a comfort and an inspiration” as he is a “satire of presidential gravitas, a satire of compassion and grievance, a satire of civility, masculinity and patriotism.” The president is a living proof for “communication was concealment.” In another instance, when Payal, a kleptomaniac in the novel, is watching television in her hotel room, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s yoga practice demonstrating breathing techniques for a modern Yogi mentions its contrast to the polluted air circulating through the nostrils of people living in Bombay and Delhi. Cloaked in humour and satire, the author points towards the errors that individuals and society are prone to.
In the dysfunctional street in Bombay, he sees Payal, Brinda and Tamanna, as victims of fractured selves similar to Aki, his wife. “Ullis believed that Aki might have approved of Payal” and they might have been friends. Payal, a socialite, Ullis met on his plane journey, snorts Aki’s ashes in the belief they are some kind of powdered drug. ‘Snorting’ here is an act of placing something inside you, a catalyst that fuses the living to the dead. When Payal and Ullis snort Aki’s ashes, the act of narcotic hurtle keeps her remembrances alive even though Payal is an accidental partner to it.
In the last scene, on the return flight to Delhi, Ullis goes to a bathroom and carefully unfolds the business card and places it on the sink. Then he rolls up a note and snorts the last of his wife's ashes. At first, the scene seems like an account of humour but prods at the fact that death and oblivion are nothing but a delirious illusion of the mind. Snorting the ashes of his wife makes him remorseful that he no longer had anything left of her. But she will live in Ullis’s nasal passages and pulsating blood vessels forever.
In his earlier book release interviews, The Book of Chocolate Saints and the present Low, Thayil makes a special mention of Dom Moraes (1938 – 2004) -- widely known as a foundational figure in Indian English literature-- who had inspired Thayil to write. For the author, Moraes is the poet who defined what modern poetry is today. He had been a friend of Thayil’s father T. J. S. George, author and journalist – they first met when Jeet was 14. Moraes lends his name to the protagonist, Dominic Ullis (Dom Ullis) of Thayil’s latest book, Low. In The Book of Chocolate Saints one finds a connection to Moraes too, the name Xavier, were the first names of Moraes’s parents Beryl and Frank.
Low has an autobiographical element too. The representation of Aki correlates the late Shakti Bhatt (1980 – 2007) editor-publisher, Jeet Thayil’s wife, in real life. Bhatt worked as the editor at Random House and later with Bracket Books, an imprint for IBD. She was a woman with “an innate love for literature coupled with a genuine zest for promoting the work of others”, remembers Anita Roy, writer, editor and publisher Zubaan Books. Remembering Shakti, eM (Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan), a very close friend and blogger wrote: “And I met her whilst the two (Shakti and Jeet) of them were in Bombay for the Kitab fest, and thanks to them, partied very poshly, and we talked about relationships and whether she ever regretted being married, because she was quite young and she said, "You know, it's like the difference between a sonnet and blank verse. Marriage gives my life structure, and this way it's always two people on my side.”
Low is set over two nights and a day in near-contemporary Mumbai. Mumbai or Bombay with its 50 years of Mumbai underworld, drugs and the low life was the setting and has a recurrent presence in his books. Like his earlier works, the novel Low is also based on his real-life experiences.
Courtesy : Instagram
He is a novelist, journalist, a performance poet, guitarist and musician, all woven into one. Now 61 years, Thayil was born in a place called Mamalassery which falls in Ernakulam district of Kerala and was educated in Jesuit schools of Bombay, Hong Kong and New York. He worked as a journalist for 23 years before writing his bestselling debut novel, Narcopolis. He became the first Indian to the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Man Asian Literary Prize too. Thayil's five poetry collections which include Gemini (1992); Apocalypso (1997); English (2004) and These Errors Are Correct (2008), won the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Award (India's National Academy of Letters). He is also the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Thayil says that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has greatly influenced his life. Poet Vijay Seshadri has rightly said on the Write India Season 3 platform that Thayil is “contemporary precisely because he has such command of the poetic and historical past, and because his invented language has such depth, archaeological richness, and reality.”
“The narrator of Narcopolis is the protagonist of Low, and the first chapter of Narcopolis tells the entire story of The Book Of Chocolate Saints. As far as I am concerned, the druggy Bombay book is over; I am very happy to move on."
“I would have written that anyway, it was just something that occurred to me. The point about snorting somebody's ashes is that it's a way of putting them inside you forever.” – VICE
William Dalrymple @DalrympleWill Dec 4, 2012, Jeet Thayil: "Indian reviewers don’t read books. They read the prologue then they read all the other reviews. It’s that pathetic."
In an interview recently with Sampurna Chattarji during the JaipurLitFest, Thayil said, “The job of a writer is to be alert about what is going on around with climate change which is very real, it is like a swing to the ride as if it is the last ride.”
“Happiness is overrated. I think happiness is a kind of myth that’s been the women force-fed. For one thing, it doesn’t last very long and for another, I don’t think it leads to any kind of sustained satisfaction which writing can give you....when engaged in writing, joy must be delivered, satisfaction must be delivered than the mythological happiness we’ve been told about.”
“Regret is the river of the world.”
“Poets are beautiful liars”