Sunday, July 27, 2008

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The nature of ambition

The surety that you can do it. The faith that no one can do it better. Never ever being satisfied. Never being ashamed to fail. A willingness to learn. Cussedness. Discontentment. Seeking, seeking, seeking. The lack of a finish line. The belief that there is more to life than what is. Zeal. Fearlessness. Boldness, not necessarily loudness.The pursuit of everlasting.

Ambition is a good word.

Monday, July 21, 2008


By Ian McEwan

I like Ian McEwan and Atonement is one of my all-time favourite books. Which is why I surprised myself when I disliked this one, a Booker winner to boot.

It started off promising. A dead character, Molly Lane with 3 ex-lovers and a husband at her funeral. Two of those ex-lovers are deep friends – Vernon Halliday, the editor of Judge, a newspaper with a falling circulation and a need for an infusion of newness and dynamism; and Clive Linley, a music composer with aspirations of becoming the British Beethovan. Both of them hate the other ex-lover Julian Garmony, a right-wing politician with ambitions of becoming the next Prime Minister. And dislike Molly’s husband George intensely.

Molly’s death makes Vernon and Clive make a pact with each other about their own lives and how they would wish to end them. In the weeks following Molly’s death, both Vernon and Clive are faced with moral choices that they make a hash of. And when these choices make them turn against each other, they proceed to Amsterdam to fulfil their pact - ensuring a denouement that reads straight out of Sydney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight.

What surprises is McEwan’s absolute lack of sympathy for any of his characters. There is not a single one you could instinctively like. The plot is racy, almost thriller-like. And his language still is exquisite. But a Booker for this? Stay away unless you are a die-hard McEwan fan.

The Post-American World

By Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post American World is an easy to read analysis of the world order today, in the style of Friedman’s The World is Flat. As in the latter, it coins some buzz phrases that are sure to join the general lexicon of everyday speech. Does it have startlingly new analysis? No. Does it abound in debatable generalisations? Yes. Yet it is an interesting read, one that holds your attention in a very pop-pol-science kind of way.

Zakaria is an Indian-born American who writes a column in Newsweek and is also the editor of its international edition. His contention is that the world is moving away from a uni-polar world (with the US as its only superpower) to a world that is seeing ‘the rise of the rest’, from the obvious China, India, Russia and Brazil to even countries like Kenya and Tanzania and Chile and Vietnam. Increasingly economics is trumping politics and countries that are showing dynamism in their economies are showing a surge in power. “This hybrid international system – more democratic, more dynamic, more open, more connected – is one we are likely to live with for several decades….”, he says. And the challenge for his home country America is exactly this - dealing with the rise in confidence and power of nations that have so far been relegated to the third world.

The gap between the cosmopolitan and business elite and the common majority of the American people in the understanding of this changing world worries Zakaria. And the irony is that it is America’s ideas and actions – its push for free trade, markets and currencies and development of new technologies and industries – that has resulted in the rise of the rest. And while the rest of the world has gotten good at capitalism, the Americans themselves are getting suspicious of these very things that they have always celebrated; thus now witnessing political rhetoric against immigration, free trade and technological change.

The rise of the rest also means a heightened confidence and pride in their own countries and a resurgence of nationalism that sometimes proves worrying to Americans. Yet, as Zakaria says, “Americans take justified pride in their own country – we call it patriotism – and yet are genuinely startled when other people are proud and possessive of theirs.”

He devotes 2 chapters to China and India, the examples in his book of ‘the rest’. China is the bigger challenge for America. Its sheer size and scale awe Americans, who revere size. And its growth story is almost a replica of the American growth story when it began to challenge the British empire. The China challenge is a new one, one America has not tackled before and one in which it is not very prepared. Zakaria’s prescription is co-option, rather than confrontation and choosing the battles to fight with China - the way Britain let America flourish, made it its ally rather than foe. It is an easy prescription to write about, but when you have two societies that have so very differing moral standpoints about so many issues, it is rather difficult to see them as allies. The India chapter is pretty standard – he sees the India growth story as a bottom-up one rather than top-down like China; the government being a hurdle to growth rather than a catalyst; the democratic factor likely to make India an ally rather than a foe; and the need to keep India’s aspirations in mind when dealing with it – give it its Security Council seat and bring it into the nuclear club.

Zakaria is optimistic about America’s ability to deal with this changing world. In a typical immigrant-with-an-American-dream sort of way, he writes - “American culture celebrates and re-enforces problem solving, questioning authority, and thinking heretically. It allows people to fail and then gives them a second and third chance. It rewards self-starters and oddballs. These are all bottom-up forces that cannot be produced by government fiat”. To him, the challenge lies in Washington – will the politicians be able to rise above narrow lobbying and special interest groups to cement America’s place in this changing world.

Zakaria’s prescription to America to deal with this changing world is to see itself as a moderator, an organizer and a leader, rather than an autocratic dictator. “The chair of the board who can gently guide a group of independent directors is still a very powerful person.” He recommends it choose its battles and engagements well; think asymmetrically and laterally (diplomatic corps, nation-building capabilities, technical assistance teams rather than a military command centre like AFRICOM); and most important, seek the legitimacy it so critically lacks in the world’s eyes today and constantly seek international public support for its view of the world. Rather a simplistic and obvious way forward I thought. But then, maybe there aren’t enough people saying these things in America today.

“America’s image may not be as benign as Americans think, but it is, in the end, better than the alternatives. That is what has made its immense power tolerable to the world for so long”, says Zakaria. That is the truth. And therefore, for whatever it is worth, it is as important for the rest of the world to see how America adapts as it is for America itself.