He came to with a start, his phone buzzing with a text from Danny: ‘There in 10, see u.’ He stared at the message unseeing, Aki’s words ringing in his head. Become horse not tiger. It was the opposite of Blake’s dictum. The horses of instruction and reason pulled in the opposite direction from the tigers of wrath and instinct. Aki was saying follow reason. Follow the horse, not h-dash-in. She was telling him not to take heroin. Had she had a change of heart? Or had she been saying this all along and he’d heard her wrong, deliberately, for his own reasons?
He was still staring at Danny’s text. It took a long moment for the words to register. There was no chance he would make it across the city to Bandra in ten minutes, but Danny’s ten was an ordinary man’s hour. He had plenty of time if he set off immediately.
‘Thoda tho dena, yaar,’ said one of the young junkies. His attempted smile exposed front teeth crusted with a layer of brown tar.
Ullis left a small helping of powder on the foil.
‘What is your good name?’ It was the junkie with the mullet.
‘Dominic,’ he said. ‘And yours?’
‘I am Sonu. Welcome to my home.’
‘It’s very nice to meet you,’ said Ullis.
‘Mujhe bhi,’ said Sonu.
He took a last drag and passed the foil to his friend. He said the stretch of sidewalk they were sitting on had been his home for almost a year now. A comfortable place, except during the monsoon. What did Ullis think of Bombay’s monsoons?
‘I find it hard to believe that people live here. It’s uninhabitable for most of the year but the monsoons are murderous, the entire city flooded with filth,’ said Ullis, looking up at the clear night sky, alert to augury and fray. ‘It’s unlivable yet people live here. It’s true of everywhere, true and getting truer as the years pass. You can see it if you look for it. First the water rises slowly, so slowly it’s imperceptible. But you know it’s higher than it was last year. It’s higher and you have to raise your house. You raise your house and then you raise it again. Now the water comes suddenly. Huge water, huge lakes, great rivers where it has always been dry. Flash floods in places that have never flooded before. Then the water doesn’t come at all. It dries the earth, cracks it open. There are cracks where there was moisture, a new desert, and people become water refugees. They take their animals and move to the cities. But the city can’t handle the influx. The riots begin, the killings, the long struggle, tribes forming and reforming, everybody living for the day, for the next few hours. It’s already happening. It’s already crazy that we live the way we live. Look at the huge fissures in the land and in the water. Think about earthquakes. Entire towns flattened overnight. Or washed away overnight. Your house shredding around you, your street washed away, your car floating upside down among the trees.
The permafrost thawing faster than anybody imagined, abruptly thawing over vast tracts of the Arctic, and the billions of tons of carbon that’s locked into it, waiting to be released into the atmosphere, to make everything hotter. More heat, more water, more displacement. We say, how can this be? Yet we endure, year after year we endure. It’s a natural calamity, we say. The hand of God is upon us but we take pride in our resilience. We shall overcome. We’ll bounce back. But it’s happening more often and it gets worse every time. And what do you do afterwards? Do you go back to the town or neighbourhood or village that has washed away or dried up? Do you try and reconstruct your life? 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? You search the sky for clues, listen to the birds and the dogs for a warning, and you pick up and move on, go somewhere new to start again. Why do you do it? There’s nowhere to go and everywhere is the same.’
Sonu looked at Ullis for a moment in amazement. Then he nodded vigorously and nodded out, his forehead coming to rest on the sidewalk.
‘Chalo, good night. I mean good morning,’ Ullis said politely, swaying in the direction of the traffic.
It was almost six and the crows were awake, making their usual outsize clamour. For how long had he nodded out? It felt like hours. On the sidewalk a woman stirred a great battered cauldron. There were benches to the side, already crowded with early morning tea drinkers waiting for the brew. The smell of strong tea boiled with milk was one of the smells he associated with the city, along with the smell of sewage and flowers. His stomach seized pleasantly. It occurred to him that he had kept some food down, the kebabs from Jungle Beats. Soon he’d be able to hold a glass of water, though this was always a bad sign. It meant you were getting accustomed to heroin, which in turn meant you were a beat away from the wild turkey of withdrawal and the many and varied pleasures of hell the wretched bird brought in her wake. If he were to change his religion, what shape would the new faith take? Was he shedding or acquiring? Quitting drugs – what an idea. How final and unaccommodating. Like being left without faith or protection in a pagan world. How newly opened to emotion it left you, your immunity to ‘feelings’ newly suspended. This was what it meant to kick drugs. You were kicking against God. It was a futile exercise.
He found a taxi waiting at the junction.
‘Bandra,’ he said. ‘Thoda jaldi karna.’
‘You want to go from Sea Link?’ said the driver in only slightly broken Bombay English. Ullis noted the seesaw rhythm and the emphatic tempo. Here it was, one of the great dialects of the world, in which English was bent and reshaped to fit the needs of the living city.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘please.’
‘Okay,’ said Ullis. ‘Thank you.’
The driver put the radio on and turned down the volume and old Hindi music wafted into the car, a snatch of R. D. Burman, the composer in full orchestral mode with a knowing nod in the direction of jazz, those frantic violins over a battalion of congas, a man rhythmically panting . . .
Ullis settled back into the seat and wound down the window. Warm air blew into the car, bringing scents of night jasmine and cinders.
‘Enjai,’ said the driver.
Was Bombay the only city in the country in which speaking English was not considered a subversive elitist activity? Perhaps, but it was also the city in which speaking English was considered a deeply subversive elitist activity. The city had changed its name. It had changed the names of streets, museums, government buildings, universities, airports, restaurants and libraries. Most recently Elphinstone Road Station, which shared its name with the college Ullis had taken pride in not attending, had had its name changed to Prabhadevi. The spree of renaming was the mark of a broken civilisation thathated English and aspired to it atone and the same time. Even the people in charge of the city, leaders of the current regime such as Niranjan, aka Ninja seth, took care to denigrate Englishwallahs in public while enjoying a westernised lifestyle in private. Prominent among them was the founder of the party who was still its spiritual head, the cartoonist turned demagogue who had changed his name from Thakré to Thackeray but insisted the city change its name in reverse, from Bombay to Mumbai.
Where would it all end except in the sea?
As they crossed the Sea Link, the day went from dark to bright in a single slow-motion sweep. The inky sky, shot through with streaks of pink and mauve, went to full day though the sun had not yet shown itself. It was as if someone had turned the dimmer on a chandelier without bothering about subtlety or atmosphere. He knew who that someone was. Winding down the window he shook his fist at heaven, which by now had revealed itself fully.
‘Take it slow,’ he said aloud. ‘Let me catch my breath, why don’t you? I’m dizzy with the speed. Slow it down, you’re going too fast.’
‘Not too fast,’ said the driver, ‘speed limit is eighty kph. See?’ He pointed at his speedometer, which hovered around seventy.
‘I see nothing,’ said Ullis, echoing Schultz, a favourite childhood television character from a show about American prisoners of war who outwitted their foolish Nazi captors week after week. The show had been on his mind lately thanks to the new reality of America, the resurgence of blood and soil, the display of blond hair and polo shirts and burning torches, a fundamentally decent populace imprisoned and manipulated by charlatans, playing up the need for comedy in the face of its opposite.
He said: ‘I see nothing. I hear nothing. Most of all, I know nothing.’
The ride passed in companionable silence.
All around him the city swarmed, the junkyard city with its million-dollar views of the junkyard, ahead of him the Palais Royale, newest and highest of high-rises, surrounded by slums on every side, an embodiment of the city’s long-standing tryst with ugliness and wealth, the building’s construction delayed while municipal officers extracted the largest bribes possible, around it a forest of other high-rises, grandiose exercises in excess, a secret society of unsold apartments in overpriced buildings, the neighbouring red-light district razed and remade into office towers, the street of opium dens and hashish parlours become travel agencies and retail emporia, the Soviet-era blocks of unbridled Brutalism beside nineteenth-century examples of genteel Victoriana, the whole breathtaking tumbledown palace taking shape now out of the early morning smog, all around him the glorious ash-heap of the city coming into view degree by unexpected degree, the abandoned textile mills converted into chic prefab nightspots, the tanneries razed and reconstructed into white-walled art galleries, the surviving docks and fisheries coming to life, entire neighbourhoods submerged under the smell of dry fish, the banyan and peepal trees turned into shrines with a bit of coloured fabric, a stub of lit candle, a smear of kumkum, the silk-cotton trees become homes for the homeless, every tree and corner and street and neighbourhood an endless gradation of caste and ghetto, the ocean of lower-middle, islands of upper-middle, and the ever-flowing river of middle-middle, the East Indian convention halls and doilied homes where elderly couples dance the twist, singing along to Jim Reeves and Cliff Richard, a print of blond blue-eyed Jesus above a perpetual candle in the living room, the young courting couples and married couples huddling in the dark on the seafront, trying for a moment of intimacy away from the eyes of joint families and predatory constables, the secret beach at Mahim and its dirty brown sand, the miles-long railway station market stalls already setting up to sell cheap underwear, pirated movies, sex toys, time-saving kitchen gadgets and fresh marigolds for the temple, the air-conditioned windowless rooms that exist beyond day or night where the figures on the couch are always interchangeable and the drugs on the coffee table cut with powdered milk and local anaesthetic, where a girl dances alone in the kitchen to music no one else can hear, music more basic than the 4/4 EDM playing in the rest of the house, and as the taxi sped past neighbourhoods he classified according to the drugs he had taken and the houses he had taken them in, the city became a catalogue of unstable highs and terrible lows, the years of addiction and withdrawal that marked his life before he met Aki one Saturday afternoon in Manhattan.
The above is an extract from Jeet Thayil’s Low, which will be published by Faber on 23 January.
Image © Roehan Rengadurai