She was about to run a bath when he called. She was watching CNN and sipping from a glass of Jim Beam on ice. Her suite had been the first in the hotel to have a television screen installed on the bathroom mirror. She was so taken with the idea that she’d got one on her dressing table mirror as well. Which made four screens in all counting the flat screen mounted on the wall in the bedroom, slightly excessive by any reckoning. Why did she need so many televisions? What had she been thinking? Or perhaps she hadn’t been thinking. Perhaps she’d been drinking. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
At eleven in the morning, opening time, she’d asked Benny at the Harbor Bar to send her a bucket of his extra-large ice cubes that took ages to melt. Benny was the master of the all-important detail that made your alcohol experience immeasurably better and superior in every way to drinking at any bar other than the Harbor. He also sent up bitters and club soda and vermouth, everything except the single most important ingredient. Alcohol was forbidden to her because of certain untoward incidents in the past that she did not care to recall. It didn’t matter that she owned (miniscule) shares in the hotel: she was banned from ordering anything remotely resembling a drinkie-poo. It infuriated her and so she devised a system. When friends came to visit she encouraged them to bring along a bottle or two, preferably Belvedere or Beluga (though she was no snob when it came to distilled spirits and if there was no alternative she’d guzzle even the local rotgut, Romanov). In return she provided choice items from the room service menu.
At the moment she was willing to overlook the inconvenience of her predicament, that a grown grey-haired woman, mother to a grown son, was unable to order a drink in her private, not to say permanent suite. She was willing to let the resentment go, if only temporarily. The reason for her sunniness of disposition was this: she was feeling good for the very first time in days, mellow, if that was the word. It had everything to do with the stuff she had found in her new friend’s promotional Jim Beam backpack. After he had toddled off on his chore she had felt compelled to open up the backpack and take a look inside. The white box had intrigued her—imagine, a backpack that held nothing more than a mid-sized box of powder—and she’d been further compelled, even duty-bound, to try an initial cautious line. It wasn’t the best coke she’d ever had, and it certainly was not the worst, not by a long shot. She cut a few more lines remarking at the lumpiness and strange color. But she had enjoyed the effects, delicate and refined, as good as the best Colombian. Without a doubt it was designer shit. She’d lucked out but she wasn’t going to be greedy. She took a heaping tablespoon for herself and packed it safely in a baggie. The rest she left as she found it.
When the phone rang she said brightly, “Oh, hello!”
“Hello, it’s me,” said Ullis, inadvertently quoting Todd Rundgren.
“Where are you, darling?”
“On my way,” he said, “mere moments away.”
“Oh dear, I have to be off, Ulysses darling, to Alibag, which, as you know, is on the other side of the globe. I have a party to arrange. I’d love you to come along. Would you like to do that?”
“I don’t see why n… yes, I’d like that.”
“Only if you’re back in time. Whatever shall I do with your backpack if you aren’t?” She could leave it with the concierge. But what if they opened it? She had a bad enough reputation as it was.
“Count to ten and I’ll be there,” said Ullis urgently, “seriously, don’t go without me.”
Well then, she would wait until he returned. He sounded quite desperate, the poor man. She would settle on the couch and make herself another drink as she ran the bath—a little drinkie with a slow-melting Benny-inflected ice cube. And in the meantime she would try to unravel a mysterious tiny riddle. How had she become a woman who drank alone in hotel rooms in the middle of the day?
As a child she had watched her father start the morning with scotch. Mean with hangover, he would open a new bottle and take a first sip. He’d place the glass on the sink and only then would he brush his teeth. By the time he’d finished shaving his famous charm was back in full force. The wolfish smile and kiss curl that the photographers adored. Master Raj was the life of the party again, the debonair son of the hotel’s founder, the single father whose wife had left him less than a year into their marriage, the handsome playboy who managed to make even alcoholism seem glamorous. Sometimes he’d give her a sip because he liked to see the face she made. Doubtless this was the reason she’d developed a lifelong fondness for spirits of all kinds. She was eleven when he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Geneva. As if in consolation they had shipped her off to school in London, preceded by a year on the Continent where she stayed with her father’s relatives or in hotels. She’d enjoyed the hotels because she’d made one of the great discoveries of her life, the mini bar and its endlessly replenished tiny bottles of goodness. As a new student at SOAS she would take the occasional glass of wine. She switched to vodka around the time her politics hardened into activism. She protested on the streets. She cultivated and was cultivated by London’s radical set. And she published an essay that suggested, via Marcuse and William Burroughs, that the Internet was a form of social control. This was before social media became widespread. In some quarters her ideas were hailed as mildly prophetic and she could have taken up a life in academia or publishing. Instead she returned to India and resumed the ways of the idle heiress. Before she knew it she was drinking a bottle of vodka a day, starting with a jug of Bloody Mary that she made the night before and kept ready and waiting in the fridge.And in the meantime she would try to unravel a mysterious tiny riddle. How had she become a woman who drank alone in hotel rooms in the middle of the day?
She took her drink to the tub and watched the American president swing a golf club on CNN. He was not wearing a jacket and the enormity of his buttocks struck her anew. How could such a pear-shaped man with such an obese bum not be shamed every day of his life? If a duck-shaped woman were to be President she would be mercilessly trolled. She would be reminded constantly of her outsize bottom. Yet here was this man, this small-handed malignancy, swanning around the globe, golfing no less. Sick of the sight of him, she switched to a local news channel in which six people in six equal squares screamed at each other simultaneously. Not a word was comprehensible. Who were the screaming heads and what were they screaming about? She couldn’t tell. But the pitch of the voices was unbearable and she hastily turned down the volume.
She took a sip of whiskey and wondered why she watched television in the first place. Addicted. She was addicted to the stoppage of linear time. When she allowed herself to be sucked into the screen, time dissolved into concept. It was like entering a new reality. The politicians and hucksters peddling slime and poison, the men in khadi and saffron who defended the indefensible, who protected the murderers acting in the name of the cow, who protected the rapists and the bullies.
She could not look away.
She watched as the scene switched to footage of the nation’s bearded prime minister espousing yoga as a means to world peace. To demonstrate the truth of his assertion he enacted a ridiculously simple asana that a novice could accomplish—by stretching his arms above his head. Oh, you silly man, she thought, you smug self-satisfied villain. Now he was blocking his nostril with a forefinger to demonstrate the correct breathing technique for the modern yogi. What earthly connection was there between him and the vast nation he so maliciously governed?
The very next piece of “breaking” news was an old man being beaten up by a gang of teenage hoodlums for the crime of belonging to a religious minority. So here was the connection between the rulers and the ruled, between the tailored, barbered overlords and their unwashed foot soldiers. A plague of blood-gorged bloodsuckers battening on fear, a horde of upright leeches scouring the starving nation. Encased in fat, which they wore like armor, they divided the poor and mocked their poverty. They didn’t worry about being held accountable for their crimes. Anything could be spun into a story about nationalism and its opposite. Equality was propaganda and reason was conspiracy and compassion a sign of weakness. What intoxicated them was power, the habit-forming rush of it, the way the masses parted and fell to genuflect in their presence. What drove them was sex, the ease of it, how easily it could be bought or coerced. For they were the new statesmen of India, all of them men, foul-mouthed and unlettered, squatting to eat, squatting to shit, squatting to watch porn in the houses of Parliament, stopping their convoys to piss squatting on the road—instigating, improvising, spreading. And what were they spreading? Exactly this: murder and the incitement to murder. The message was pounded home in the words they used and the words between the words. No image was too trite, no metaphor too labored, no gesture too gross.
This was their great accomplishment. The way they hefted their testicles for reassurance that their genitals were intact, the way they touched themselves to make certain they were still men. But they were not men. They were blood-black humanoids with a taste for terror and sex. At their happiest when they were together, men without women, laughing, eating, yawning, cleaning their plates with their fat fingers. Cow-talk their preferred mode of communication, accomplished with much chewing of the cud, with much lowing and bellowing, with the endless proprietorial dropping of dung.
She watched with fascination and gratitude as the procession of the pitiless passed before her. Fascination, because that was the homage paid to power by the powerless. Was it not a privilege that she was even allowed to watch their craven enactments of persecution and revenge? And gratitude was due to the good lord for alcohol, because there was no other way to preserve one’s sanity in the face of extreme yogic oppression.
Television. She couldn’t look away.
She took a deep sip of bourbon and tasted smoke and comfort. Inevitably she thought of her father. What had he been doing in Geneva, of all places? Why was he alone? Was he alone? No one would tell her. When they brought the body back to India she’d not been allowed to see him. Her mother was a moderately well known actress who had left her father soon after Payal was born. She had been in London making a movie. One morning she called Payal collect at the hotel.
“I’m so very sorry, darling Payal, but now you know why I left,” she said, her voice muffled, as if it had to penetrate across many layers of cork and cotton wool.
“Because he was such an old soak, darling, absolutely a tosspot.”
“Will you stay in London for ever?” Payal had asked.
“Of course not, my love,” her mother said. “I’ll be back just as soon as this wretched movie is finished. You know that. And now I must be off, Paolo’s shooting me for Vogue. It’s quite an honor as well as a tiny bit of a bore. Anyway, lots of love, darling.”
She hadn’t seen her mother since, which she supposed made her an orphan, a ward of the hotel, a bereft five-star princess. There are worse things, she’d told her eleven-year-old self, and gone right ahead with her life. She almost never missed her mother.
Now she splashed soapy water around the tub as more footage of the prime minister’s yoga exercise was screened around the world. It called for urgent measures. She dried her hands and picked up her phone and sent a text message to a dozen numbers: “Tonight’s the night! See you in Alibag, 8 PM! Be as late as you like!” Had she missed anyone? There was Feroze, to whom she owed money. If she didn’t invite him he would hear about it from mutual friends and her small window of opportunity would narrow even further. But she was willing to take this calculated risk. She would go out of her way not to see him. Who else? Her new friend Dom Ulysses, in the funereal black suit he refused to doff. Did he own no other item of clothing? Or was it some kind of uniform, some indication of constant mourning?
She pulled the plug on the bath and rinsed with the hand shower and put on her navy blue robe. She called the butler service and asked for Imtiaz. When he arrived she was in a pinstriped pantsuit putting the final touches on her eyes. She was sipping parsimoniously from a glass of water, no drugs or alcohol anywhere in her vicinity.
“Madam, good afternoon,” said Imtiaz.
“Imtiaz, darling,” she said, “I’m having some friends over tonight and I want you to pack a nice meal for about fifteen people.”
“Certainly, madam,” said Imtiaz, “what would you like as starters?”
“The poached scallops, I think? And the seared tuna and plenty of decent caviar with all the fixings.”
She picked at a bowl of cut fruit and wiped her lips and applied a layer of nude Shanghai Spice. In the mirror she saw her father’s brown eyes and healthy hair. As in her life so in her face: no trace remained of her mother.
“Tenderloin and biryani for the mains?”
“Perfect. Also a selection of desserts, which I shall leave to you.”
“Very good, madam. I will pack some handmade sorbets in ice. With crème brulée and fruit?”
“Make sure there’s nothing foamy, Imtiaz darling. I can’t bear to look at foam, quite honestly,” she said.
“Of course, madam.”
“I’ll be taking everything to Alibag, so pack it properly and put it in the car. Will that be alright, darling?
“Right away, madam,” said Imtiaz. “Shall I include linen and flowers?”
“No need at all.”
“Will that be all, madam?” said Imtiaz, bowing as he left.
“I think so,” she said, hearing the sound of traffic from the road below. She crossed the room to get her cigarettes from the coffee table and smoked an Esse standing at the big picture windows. They were digging up the walkway between the hotel and Apollo Bunder. Sometimes she heard bulldozers at odd hours of the night and early morning, and sometimes the sound of horse carriages taking customers for a truncated ride along the water because much of the road was closed to traffic.
From the window she saw bright sunlight on the bay and ferry boats plying to and from the Elephanta Caves. It was a peaceful view and it was unchanged for most of the year except during the monsoons when everything disappeared under rain: her favorite season. First it wrapped the city in blankness. It destroyed the city then made it new. It remade the city in its own watery image. Bombayites believed only in what they could see and touch. Because they were always in the presence of water they knew they would become water molecules one day.
Her phone pinged: “Mom, don’t forget to tell Mahesh to file before the 30th.” It was Jack, all the way from London, reminding her to file her taxes. He knew she would forget otherwise. How had her son become so responsible at such an early age? What had she done right? Despite all the errors of her life, at least she had done this correctly. She had brought him up without mishap. Astonishing, considering how many dangers lay on the path between childhood and sense. How paranoid she had been each time he was out of her sight, how worried that some terrible accident would befall him. He had come out of it unscathed, a financial wunderkind, and nowadays he liked to parent his mum. She replied: “I will, darling. Skype me soon?”
On television the prime minister was cross-legged on a mat in the center of a vast lawn surrounded by people of all ages attempting the most basic of asanas. In her twenties and thirties she had practiced Hatha Yoga for some years. At one time she had even been qualified to teach. Her criticism was professional as much as it was aesthetic. It was clear that the bearded man was play-acting. He was posing at posing and even this he didn’t do correctly. It was the image that mattered, the great leader espousing yoga. It countered the hundreds of other images that clogged the screens and newspapers of the nation, the images of mutilation, of poor women dragged naked and screaming through the streets. On cue the screen cut to more footage of the old man being tortured by teenagers on the streets of Meerut, a godforsaken town in the lawless wastelands to the north of the nation, the old man pulled by his hennaed chin beard on a mud road, his attackers kicking him, hitting him with lathis, and what was this, were there policemen among them, clearing the way for the young thugs bent on blood? It was all too much. Television was the devil. This was why she couldn’t look away. The devil would not let her.
She poured more bourbon and drank it down like medicine. She packed make-up, moisturizer, Mario Badescu buffering lotion and a small bottle of shampoo into a mesh pouch. She put the lot in a wheelie and added a pair of heels and a shawl. She switched channels to VH1. She hoped to find a Rihanna or Dua Lipa video. Instead there was Nicki Minaj, her second most favorite badass chick. She turned it up loud enough to rattle the windows and flipped through a magazine.
Abstaining from sex, had to zen my body, Nicki said. I aint givin’, so don’t ask, I don’t lend my body.
When the doorbell rang she felt strong enough to face whatever was on the other side. It was Dom Ullis at last, looking more malnourished than ever. How? Was it even possible? He seemed to have become skinnier and frailer in a matter of hours.
“So loud,” he shouted. “The music.”
“The remote’s over there,” she told him. “Under the New Statesman.”
“New Statesman?” He stumbled over the Persian carpet as he moved the stack of magazines. “Now there’s a name from the past.”
“I still subscribe,” she said. “Can’t seem to shake the habit, I’m afraid. I’m so pleased you got here in the very nick of time.”
He picked up the remote and turned the sound so low she could barely hear it. He took off his sunglasses. His eyes were huge and flecked with blood. “Sorry,” he said. “Can’t seem to take loud music, or advertisements, or gore in the movies. I used to love all that. Now I want pop music and Disney. I want rom-coms. What’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” she said. “Something’s right. You’re embracing your inner maiden at last.”
When he had made himself comfortable on the couch she turned off the television and stood in front of him with her arms crossed. He was still apologizing, earnestly, for turning down the music. She had no idea how to begin.
“Ulysses darling, I have to make a confession,” she said.
“Good, good, so do I,” said Ullis.
“Right then, you go first.”
“My wife died. Her name was Aki. She was the editor of a publishing house. She loved loud music and she loved to dance. It was suicide by hanging. We had a stupid fight and I came home and found her. I think she wanted me to find her, to punish me. After the cremation I got on a plane and came to Bombay, because this used to be home for her. She grew up here and she always loved the city. I wanted to put her ashes into clean and flowing water the way you’re meant to in the Hindu tradition. Delhi has no water except for the Yamuna, the filthiest river in the world. I knew I’d have better luck in Bombay. I knew I’d find flowing water here, but I’m all out of luck. I’m out of the flow. Everything’s wrong, I can see that. I’m no good without Aki. That’s the simple truth of the matter. I’m no good and I want to hold on to her, to her ashes? I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“You’re carrying her ashes with you?” said Payal, as the full meaning of it came to her. “With you, now?”
“It’s in the backpack, that’s why I didn’t want you to leave it here.”
Silently, Payal had started to cry.
“I’m so sorry,” she began. “But it was really good shit.”
From Low by Jeet Thayil. Copyright © 2020 by Jeet Thayil. Reprinted with permission of Faber & Faber.