British and American publishers have tended to be interested in three types of Indian novel. The heart-warming saga set around a massive, bickering family involving lots of weddings and rose petals; the heart-wrenching tale of poverty and caste inequality; and the heartening migration story.
Jeet Thayil’s entry into the British market in 2012 marked a departure. His first novel, Narcopolis, was set mostly in Indian opium dens in the late 1970s. It conjured up a seedy but glamorous Bombay before heroin swept in from Pakistan and before the city became the international metropolis of Mumbai. It was about self-destruction and epiphany, sinning and redemption and met a hostile reception in India – until, that is, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Thayil – a journalist, poet and former junkie who spent 20 years addicted to opium, heroin and alcohol – writes melancholy, nostalgic, occasionally humorous stories about upper-crust Indians squandering their talents on drugs. He is an outsider who is preoccupied with the shame of being a Westernised Indian or, as he puts it, a “self-hating Englishwallah”. With Low, his third novel, he has turned his attention to the “New India” of Hindu nationalism and high-rise luxury apartments, where the super-rich wonder how soon they can replace their servants with robots.
On the day that his publisher wife Aki is cremated in Delhi, poet and ex-junkie Dominic Ullis catches a plane to Bombay (as he insists on calling it) wearing a black suit, carrying only a rucksack. Inside is a box containing Aki’s ashes, a mobile phone and little else. Ullis, who promised his wife he would never again touch heroin, is heading to Bombay simply because it’s “the city he knew best, where oblivion could be purchased cheaply and without consequence”.
Aki spent her life suffering with depression – “the low” as she called it. As Ullis hurtles round Bombay fuelled by bourbon, meow-meow and heroin, he reflects on their four-year relationship, keeping an eye out for some pure and flowing water in which he might sprinkle her remains.
Over a sleepless weekend, Ullis mixes with left-wing hotel heiresses and bum- bag-wearing smack dealers, Hindu nationalist politicians and nightclub dancers. But the only company he values is that of Donald Trump on YouTube. This “addle-brained fuck trinket”, as he calls him, provides a “crazed floating lullaby” that becomes as addictive as the narcotics.
The plot is thin, the story composed of taxi rides, dodgy deals, dimly lit parties and decadent dinners. Each time he wakes from a bout of excess, “surprised, guilty and vaguely resentful to be alive”, he numbly observes a city where unsold apartments in overpriced buildings tower over tarpaulin-covered slums, where the red-light district and opium dens have been bulldozed to make way for hip bars and retail emporia.
Like so many internationally minded, middle-class professionals, Ullis and Aki had become citizens of nowhere. In Bombay, Thayil sees a city that does not care for its past or its future of climate-related destruction: “the new Bombay devoured the corpse of the old… it cared only about the life it was living”.
I was thankful for Thayil’s reflections on hyper-capitalist India, as they are the only things to distinguish Low from Edward St Aubyn’s superior novel, Bad News. In plot, narration and tone, Low is uncannily similar. It begins on a plane, it involves ashes and class-A drugs and it features several hallucinatory episodes. Thayil’s narration also flits from the perspective of a troubled protagonist to the minds of several key characters.
But I wanted to find more to admire – and not just because the New Statesman gets a nice namecheck (“I still subscribe,” says Payal, the hotel heiress. “Can’t seem to shake the habit”). Low grapples with some really chewy ideas about modern city living, loneliness and social breakdown, about our need for stimulation and the complexities of the diasporic experience. Many of the rich Indians who are educated at liberal arts colleges in the West are horrified by the rising nationalism when they return to India – yet continue to employ low-wage servants.
But Low is a novel that sounds more interesting than it really is. The writing is just not potent enough and too many jokes fall flat (on a Bob Dylan concert: “the man on stage was an old crooner whose time had a-changed”). In one flashback scene, Ullis tells Aki he isn’t interested in hearing an account of her dreams because other people’s dreams are boring. The same might be said of other people’s drug experiences.
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose