"This book captures the tumult, ambition, hardship, and serenity that mark today's India. Theroux's Westerners risk venturing far beyond the subcontinent's well-worn paths to discover woe or truth or peace. A middle-aged couple on vacation veers heedlessly from idyll to chaos. A buttoned-up Boston lawyer finds succor in Mumbai's reeking slums. And a young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore." "We also meet Indian characters as singular as they are reflective of the country's subtle ironies: an executive who yearns to become a holy beggar, an earnest young striver whose personality is rewired by acquiring an American accent, a miracle-working guru, and others." "Theroux's portraits of people and places explode stereotypes. The Elephanta Suite urges us toward a fresh, compelling, and often inspiring notion of what India is, and what it can do to those who try to lose - or find - themselves there."--BOOK JACKET.
In three, roughly 80-page mininovels, Theroux doesn’t give us the sanitized Merchant-and-Ivory India. He doesn’t give us the tidy India of best-selling contemporary novels. Rather, he exposes us to the real underbelly of Indian culture. This is an India of pleading beggars, teenage prostitutes, weirdly comic salesmen, and people so pompous they are like parodies. Most of all, this is an India where poor people are as abundant as fleas and virtually every one will do almost anything to get one tiny step ahead.
Each of the novellas deals with American travelers. The stories are superficially interlaced. These travelers are in India at approximately the same time. In odd ways, their paths cross. It is amusing to discover these completely unimportant connections, so I won’t say any more. If you discover them, pat yourself on the back and know that you are a careful reader. If you miss them, don’t worry: these connections are of absolutely no importance.
The first novella, Monkey Hill, tells the tale of a wealthy American couple who vacation in India at a luxury retreat. They only see the real India from the window of their limousine as they are rushed from the airport to their lush hilltop health-spa retreat. Through brief sexual encounters with two startlingly beautiful young people working at the resort, the wife and husband are each introduced separately to the other India—the hovel of a small rural village located completely out-of-sight within walking distance from the resort. Little do they realize that the village is currently a hotbed of Hindu-Muslim cultural and religious strife, a power-keg just waiting to go off.
The second novella, The Gateway of India, is about one of those American businessmen who give global business and America travelers a well-deserved bad reputation. This man is everything an American in India shouldn’t be. At first completely terrified by India’s alien culture, the businessman hides in his hotel eating canned food and drinking purified water. By chance he is catapulted into the other India, and falls in love with the new, sexually liberated person he becomes. In the end, this story has an interesting twist that you won’t see coming.
The last novella, The Elephant God, deals with a young female Ivy-League backpacker. Idealistically, she ends up living in a religious retreat, loving every moment of it. She thinks it’s free, and plays with the idea of living there forever. Her Indian roommates subtly make it known to her that she needs to donate a substantial sum of money each month to help pay for her living costs. So she finds a job at a global call center training workers to mimic an everyday American accent and style of speech. All goes well until a call-center worker takes an unwanted interest in her and starts stalking her.
I am a prolific reader, but this is the first set of novellas that I have every purchased. I was surprised at how delighted I was with these three mininovels. If this were a novel, I might have read it in one day—the experience was that compelling. But because these were novellas, I purposefully stopped myself after each one and thought about the tale for a day or two before going on to the next. These stories have intellectual depth that makes it easy to think about them long after you’ve finished the tale.
I highly recommend this work. In fact, I can’t wait to pack up my copy and send it to my brother. He was the one who enthusiastically recommended Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast to me some 25 years ago. Now I can earnestly return the favor!
I'm not as much a fan of Paul Theroux' fiction as I am of his travel writings but I wanted to read The Elephanta Suite for its cover photograph. What's so special about the cover you ask? It shows a vista that has now been crudely obscured by an ugly, if necessary flyover. The photograph shows Mohammed Ali Road, a center of Muslim life in Mumbai, scene of glorious mayhem, food and people, cars and scooters, everyone jostling for space. It is the neighborhood my dad grew up in and which I regularly visited all through my childhood. To the right is the Minara Masjid, where I have prayed with my dad, in the bottom right corner is Suleman Usman Mithaiwala, where I have shopped for sweets, and further down the street is Noble Opticians, my optometerists for twenty years. Unfortunately, Mohammed Ali Road has nothing to do with the book itself. The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas, each set in a different section of India with only the slightest passing reference to each other. The three locations as separated by space as by culture. The first story takes place in an exotic mountainside spa, the second alternates between the posh hotels and seedy slums of Mumbai while the third unravels in Sai Baba's ashram and a call center in Bangalore. I'm not sure if I'm saying this as an interested party but I found Mr. Theroux' depiction of Indians less than fair. Admittedly, I don't have the perspective of an American in the Indian situations described by Mr. Theroux. However, the caricature of almost every Indian his American characters come across as money grubbing, self centered or sexually desperate seems quite harsh. The American characters are relatively more sympathetic, but no less pitiful - which begs the question, is this book just an exaggerated expression of Mr. Theroux' dour view of the world? I find it hard to conclude otherwise.
I found the first novella weak but the denouement of the latter two is quite satisfying. Recommended.
While it drags a touch in places, overall an interesting book - but not his finest.
Meanwhile, the plots themselves strain under a strange tension. All three novellas seem at first to be ironic but relatively sympathetic to the protagonists, who are all one way or another blind not only to the realities of India but to their own needs and distorted relationships. But then the plots pick up speed and veer into the macabre. It’s like starting with Forster and ending with Saki. The endings are satisfying, but so obviously artful that the tales lose, in retrospect, any plausibility.
Maybe the lack of plausibility is a good thing, since Theroux's stereotypes (crafty Jains, violent Muslims, stupid nouveaux riches, etc), although updated to the current century, are still flat and ugly.
In each of these stories, these individuals have preconceived ideas of what defines India. Each one will have their first impressions of India affirm their initial assumptions. Each one will start to experience India through the people they interact with and slowly they change and their impressions change. The interactions that make such a difference in these stories span the spectrum of the diversity of people in India. We are introduced to those in the service trade, prostitutes, ambitious executives, an elephant mahout, the spoiled rich and pimps among others. Theroux slowly peels the obvious away and starts to help us uncover subtleties in mannerism, ideology and culture on both sides, that of the foreigners who have immersed themselves to varying degrees in India, as well as that of the Indians themselves.
These individuals who came to India will not leave unchanged. Each journey is described with such pointed detail you're drawn to the characters.