The Elephanta Suite
By Paul Theroux
Theroux sets his latest book - a 3 novella piece, in contemporary India. His protagonists in all 3 stories are Americans, newly arrived in a country that stuns, revolts and mostly scares them. Theroux brilliantly evokes the fear and the fascination, the decay and the opportunity, the squalor and the beauty that confronts the first time Western visitor to India today.
In the first story we encounter a couple, the Bundens, come to a yoga retreat – away from the heat and the dust of real India, cocooned in an unreal world of ayurvedic (they are unable to make up their minds whether the ayurveda doctor is a quack or not) massages, meditation and satvic food. To them this retreat is a miracle – “…India was not a country but a creature, like a monstrous body crawling with smaller creatures, pestilential with people – a big, horrific creature, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous. And another miracle was that they’d found a remote part of it that was safe.” This fear of what is so unfamiliar to them makes them quite ridiculous – especially when they believe they have used the power of their wealth to grant themselves sexual favours from the staff of the retreat. It takes them a while to discover that they have been used as much. And when the real India does catch up with them (the book almost seems to say there is no escape), all the privilege in the world can do little to save them.
Debauchery is a bigger theme in the next story. That of Dwight Huntsinger, an American lawyer in India to procure outsourcing deals for his American clients. He comes to India in a fit of reckless willfulness – he is recently divorced and he says to his ex-wife that he is going to India “…as though jumping off a bridge.” His first Indian trip was “a week of Indian hell – a secular hallucinatory underworld of actual grinning demons and foul unbreathable air…’hideous’ did not describe it; there were no words for it. It was like an experience of grief, leaving you mute and small.” Yet, he recognizes that “in all that misery there was money.” And it is that which draws him back for a second trip. Now he forces himself to step out of his luxurious Elephanta Suite in the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. And in the shadowy world around the Gateway of India, the moral depravity of his soul finds an echo – in his encounters with teenage prostitutes. They become his reason for remaining in India and day by day his dissolution grows. (The sex is vivid and frequent and nauseating - one wishes we could have been subjected to less of it). An Indian hell has enveloped him, and it takes an Indian heaven (an ashram) to help him break with the bonds of the flesh.
The third story has the character that is most empathetic to the India of today. Alice is a backpacker, taking time off after college to spend a year in India. Her travels take her to Bangalore and the ashram of Sai Baba. To pay for her way she takes up a job in the Electronic City as a tutor to call centre executives practicing their American accents. The peace she is seeking is almost there – yet it is periodically interrupted by her roommates cocooned in the ashram with little idea of the India that Alice has encountered on her journeys and her pupils who she is worried are turning into the very American brats she has run away from. Her only friends are an elephant and its mahout she befriends on her way to work. It is this elephant and the family that looks after it that shelters her when her idyll is shattered by one of those very pupils she has come to loathe. And it is this beloved elephant that secures her justice in an India that does not seem to offer her any.
All three stories are of Americans who come to India with preconceived notions; who are repelled by the country and yet who are irrevocably changed by their encounters with it. There is an unraveling in each of them, that conforms to their fears. Yet there is resolution, at least for some of them.
Theroux is amazing in his capturing of the nuances of a first timer’s encounter with a complex country. His observations are bang on –the Indian script is "like washing hanging on a clothesline"; the penchant for Indians to keep talking about themselves and their need to explain their culture to outsiders who do not get it; their inclination to use archaic English words, words like ‘utterance’, ‘miscreants’, ‘cudgeling’, ‘jocundity’. They can be sometimes trenchant – “From a distance, India was splendor; up close, misery.” And they definitely would not endear him to new age Indians looking to show off their country to outsiders. But they ring true. How could a New Englander react to India in any way but this?
As travel writing, this is brilliant. Not too many people have captured the horror India can be to a rank outsider so well. But Theroux’s story telling is more mundane. The Blundens, Dwight and Alice – they are all characters whose stories do not engage. One keeps looking for quotable quotes, little gems of observations of places and people around. These made the book for me, not the stories themselves.