Everything that Tastes Bad is Good for You

Jeet Thayil, Low

Faber& Faber, 221pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780571356416

reviewed by Stuart Walton

At the start of the final novel in what is destined to be known as Jeet Thayil's Bombay trilogy, its central character Dominic Ullis is sitting on a flight just coming in to land in that city, transitioning between an imperfect oblivion brought on by 20mg of the prescription soporific, zolpidem, and a wakefulness that hasn't quite yet earned the name, the woman next to him thriftily smuggling his airline cutlery as well as her own into a gigantic handbag, his wife's ashes in a box cradled on his lap. Most of the narrative components of what follows are contained in this opening sequence, awaiting their elaboration over a febrile long weekend in the city that the Kerala-born Thayil has made his own.

The thematic thread that links Low to its two predecessors, Narcopolis (2012) and The Book of Chocolate Saints (2017), is the culture of intoxicants and their users, mostly the kinds of substances that stand at the threatening end of the spectrum in popular conception – black opium in the 1970s, when the trilogy begins, gradually displaced in that era by clumsily cut street heroin, potent cocaine, zombifying sedatives like Mandrax, and then, in the final novel, innovative pharmaceutical hypnotics and the newly commercialised mephedrone, a psychoactive stimulant molecularly related to cathinone, active alkaloid in Middle Eastern khat.

There are essentially only two ways of incorporating drug-taking into fiction: the didactic and the normative. Either the user subsides into an admonitory private Idaho of paranoid dishevelment, or he simply takes what he takes as a structuring principle of existence, the order of one over-long day after another, often with a gourmandising relish to counterbalance the crashes and jitters and skin-creeps that monotonously intervene. The large area of overlap between the two has been the province of intoxicant writing from William Burroughs to David Foster Wallace, but Thayil manages to invest the abiding theme with a genuinely new tone by making drugs the business of whole communities of users, many of whom have other lives, all of whom have histories, and one or two of whom have considered opinions. In Narcopolis two men are hanging out at a disused theatre, waiting for an African drug courier to defecate the sealed packs of heroin he has swallowed:

'That's completely fucking disgusting.'
Rumi made a face but he made no move to leave.
'The shit's in his shit, that's why we're waiting?'
'That's how it gets here. Mules, like.'
'African donkey, more like.'
'You want government-controlled health warnings? Everything neat and organised, nutrition information on the side and best-before dates, stuff doesn't get you off take it to the Consumer Protection Bureau, petition the dealer?'

Something like that is what a rationalised intoxicant utopia might look like after all, but in the meantime, a way can be found through the randomly applied efforts of the enforcement industry by only smoking opium in the cafés dedicated to its use, where the pipes are prepared by skilled assistants and nobody is thrown off their stride by the odd western hippie venturing in and succumbing to a two-hour fit of the vomits. Taxi-drivers avert their eyes while you snort a line off your wrist in the back seat, there are clubs where there is no need to disappear into the bathrooms to take a hit, and drugs have, as throughout history, cut across all sectors of even the rigidly stratified society of India.

Not much of a spoiler alert need be sounded, then, if we return to that opening sequence of Low, with its diurnally intoxicated hero, a moneyed fellow-passenger with morals as loose as Dominic's grip on consciousness, and a suicidal wife existing only in the form of 'textured whitish ash'. It seems too easy to point to drug use as a way of substituting another adventitious reality for the one you would like to evade, unless of course it is you who is expounding the point. 'Was forgetfulness a function of grief? If so it was a blessing, a biological corrective. Forget everything! It will do you good . . . The only thing possible now was oblivion, with the aid of certain powdery or liquid substances.' All that stands between the ocean-swell of grief and approximate functionality is the strategy of proactive evasion, sanctified anyway by those who have gone before: '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. Force it down if you have to. Whatever it may be, vodka, bourbon, wine, meow meow, cocaine, heroin, force it down like medicine.' Everything that tastes bad is good for you.

In between the substances, the city slips and flashes by, seen from hotel terraces, taxicabs, night ferries, the entrances to backstreet clubs that resemble the classical underworld, places of dark necrosis from which nothing can be rescued or redeemed. A port city is so often the very definition of a cultural entrepôt, a place where different traditions come to mingle uncomprehendingly with each other, sedimenting into a state of rough-edged cohabitation until comprehension seems beside the point. Bob Dylan turns up in concert, the Jesus and Mary Chain blast from a car stereo in one of their squalls of feedback. Scenes of grotesque social pretension among the newly affluent alternate with the shadow-lives of people who live under makeshift shelters on the street, cooking over fires in the road, the various generations united by an inventory of poverty:

Old people and small children lay unguarded in sleep, their wide-open arms indicating trust or foolhardiness. There was a sleeping dog curled into a tight bundle. There were clothes hanging from a railing. There was scattered bedding and blackened pots and a plastic bucket with a piece missing from the rim.

If everything seems wildly dysfunctional about the life of a man who has nowhere to be from one hour to the next other than the next meeting with the mercurial Danny, a dealer with an outsized Afro and a golden heart to match, there is more than just self-exonerating evasion in pointing out that the whole world, under its present patchwork of amateur nationalisms and its global dungheap of lies, is similarly fucked. And what of it indeed? 'He couldn't understand it when people got so excited about politics. What else did they expect from their elected representatives, tenderness and conscience? It was like expecting a goose to appreciate the semantics of boo.’ In such a self-nihilating context, it is possible even to enjoy the auto-parodic monstrosity of a Trump, a man whose congenital lying speaks the truth at last about political power – enjoy it without of course committing the moron's error of actually liking him, 'the addle-brained fuck trinket’.

Despite all this, Thayil is anything but a nihilistic writer. Sharing a smoke in the roadway at daybreak with a derelict called Sonu, Dominic finds himself launching a smack-enabled descant about the environmental catastrophe that could have come straight from the canons of Extinction Rebellion, a tissue of the most urgent questions in the world that remain, while temporal powers dither, at the obstinately rhetorical level: 'How do you do it when the old world is gone? How do you live through the next catastrophe? How do you persist? How do you rebuild knowing it will happen again?' Only at the personal level are moments of imprecise reconciliation still possible, as when Dominic finally scatters what remains of his wife Aki's ashes from the ferryboat on the fast-flowing tide. His fellow mourners are an embarrassed society couple from the party he has just left and the teenage ferryman, Captain Juggie, all ambitious muscles and falling-down jeans, who tells Dominic he is sorry for his loss and receives a freebie Jim Beam tote-bag for his solicitude.

Thayil's prose is like fine-spun silk, shot with contrasting strands of opulence and squalor. The grim monochrome of the streets and the opium cafés or khanas (the western reader will pick up the polyglot terminology contextually as the narrative progresses) looks paradoxically vivid with life against the inert snobbery of the grand hotels, the dazzling saris and fauve coiffures – a Page Three model calling herself Petronella sports 'an electric shade of deep crimson' – in a world where the chief advantage that money buys you is being able to talk about nothing but money, other people's as well as your own. There is practised wit and nimble irony, as well as an iridescent poetic thread, in the fibre of all three of these novels, even if, as in history's parabola, it becomes steadily less entrancing as it proceeds towards the present.

On drugs – pun intended or otherwise – Thayil is almost entirely sound, with the curious exception of mephedrone in Low. In western usage, nobody apart from middle-aged journalists called it 'meow meow', as distinct from drone or meph, and it fell some way short of the psychotically sinister material represented here by its presumably adulterated street incarnation. Before it was illegalled along with everything else, it could be bought online in the UK for a tenner a gram, in which guise it enabled a warm stimulant trance fit for dancing and chatting, or for beguiling the boring bus-ride to school.
Stuart Walton is Associate Editor of the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, and author of Introducing Theodor Adorno, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling and A Natural History of Human Emotions.