Dominic Ullis, poet and addict, lover and loser, our drug-addled, desolate protagonist, burns in anguish throughout this hypnotic book after his wife hangs herself in the New Delhi apartment which they used to share – her lifeless swinging body waiting for him to come back home and find her. This is a perfect companion piece to Thayil’s earlier novel, Narcopolis, a Booker-shortlisted modern masterpiece that’s fueled with fury unlike Low, which simmers and stings with care.
Ullis leaves behind his life and travels to the only city he understands and the only city that has sometimes tried to understand him – Bombay. Not Mumbai, remember. With no luggage or belongings except an urn containing his wife’s ashes, he vagabonds through the city in search of pure water in which he can immerse his beloved’s final remains. As he meets more drifters and wanderers like him on the streets of Bombay, we get to see a side of the city that’s well within our reach but doesn’t always come out of the shadows. He drowns, in both his addiction and suffering, as we, the reader, desperately try to give him our hand while turning the pages.
Dominic is our Devdas with a metropolitan wardrobe. “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. This was his new mission, and he pursued it devotedly.”
In Afterlife, one of the most moving shows written for the screen in many years, Ricky Gervais’ character Tony loses his wife to cancer and is unable to cope with his grief – “I’d rather be nowhere with her than somewhere without her,” he proclaims.
Dominic doesn’t even know how to be nowhere; all he manages to do is come apart “in slow motion”. Low takes place over a single weekend, but if you let it, really allow it, it’ll tenderly settle in you for many years. How rarely does that happen with a book anyway? And when it does, like it did with me with Low, it’s a different kind of high.