A master of the travel narrative weaves three intertwined novellas of Westerners transformed by their sojourns in India. This startling, far-reaching 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. As ever, Theroux’s portraits of people and places explode stereotypes to exhilarating effect. 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.
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
I found the first novella weak but the denouement of the latter two is quite satisfying. Recommended.
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.
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.
Audie is rich, so this character feels entitled. He feels entitled to helping himself to women's bodies too, and feels no burden to his conscious to lying to them to get what he wants out of them.
"His love for Beth was sincere. He had said he'd loved these women, but the word never got out of the bedroom. He had desired them and could spend an entire afternoon in a hotel room with them, but it was an evaporating passion -- he shrank at the thought of sitting across the table from them for an hour to have a meal. In his life, though he had searched, he had never met a woman who felt the same, who could separate desire from love. The women he'd known combined these feelings. For them, desire was love, and it was also the promise of a future. Desire was hope, a house, children, a car, a vacation, new shoes, even grandchildren. But for him desire had a beginning and an end -- no middle, no future, only it's ungraspable evaporation. The end that seemed so natural to him was seen by the women as a betrayal. But worse than "I hate you" was that rejected face, that abandoned posture, the disappointment, the tears.
Shatoosh, made from the neck hair yanked out from a kind of antelope that is an endangered species, is a kind of scarf that rich women like to possess. Beth Blunden is no better of a character than her husband is. She goes to the front desk of the lodge and asks if they know where she can get a shatoosh. One of the workers, an ayurvedic doctor, takes them into the village below the lodge. This is where Beth can find her scarf made out of the hair yanked cruelly from the neck of an endangered species.
"After Dr nagaraj dismissed the driver, the three walked the rest of the way up the hill. Audie asked the cost of the scarves. Dr nagaraj seemed relieved and mentioned the price, and he smiled as $5,000 was counted into his hand. 'A great bargain, sir. And you are so lucky. This antelope is almost extinct.' "
Dwight huntsinger is a kind of business man that helps American Rich boys connect with the cheapest labor from india. Outsourcing jobs, is what it's called. It's the reason why the United States is turning into a third world country, And China is the New world superpower. He's the third despicable American character plundering india, in the author's book, because he can. He uses the Indian women, who give their bodies because they are desperate for money, and tries to kid himself that he truly cares about them.
"... How her father touched her -- the shame of it; how her mother beat her, blaming her, and her father sent her away to her auntie's village; how her auntie locked her in an unlit room with the grain sacks and the rats; how, when Indru went to the police, they didn't believe her; how the village boys threw bricks of cowshit at her, and when her uncle happened by to rescue her, he drove her on his motorbike to the river bank, where he dragged her through the bamboo.
'He touch me here, he touch me down here on my privates, he bite me with his teeth and call me dirty dog.'
they were harrowing stories, the more terrifying for the factual way she told them, lying on her back on the string bed, her fingertips grazing her body to indicate where she had been violated. She seemed to understand how they seized Dwight's attention and silenced him. And some evenings when he looked distracted, his gaze drifting to the window, sleepy and satisfied, she would prop herself on one elbow and drop her voice and show him a scar on her wrist, whitish on her dark skin.
'One Uncle tie me with ropes. He say, "is a game.' I be so scare. He take my sari. He say, "I no hurt you."
And what she told him next in that soft voice was more powerful to him than the racket at the window. He took a deep breath and gagged and thought, not a success at all -- it's a failure.
The smell of failure in India wasn't only Indian failure. It was a universal smell of human weakness, the stink of humanity, his own failure too. His firm of lawyers was bringing so many people down."
Dwight's own marriage was a short failure.
"At last he saw his divorce as a triumph. No one else did, which was another reason he was happy to be in india. Perhaps failure was the severest kind of truth. His work was a punishment and a wrecking ball: he took manufacturing away from American companies and brought it to india. The American manufacturers hated him -- and they failed; the Indian companies were cynical, knowing that if they could not produce goods cheaply enough, they would be rejected. Every success meant someone's failure. He could not take any pride in that process: he was part of it."
Listen to this disgusting scene:
"The way she got to her feet in pretty Little stages, first lifting her head to face him, tossing her braid aside, then raising herself by digging her fingers into his knees for balance, almost undid him. Then she was peeling off his shirt as he approached the charpoy. He watched her shimmy out of her dress, using her shoulders. When her dress dropped to her ankles she stepped out of it, kicking the door closed with one foot.
'I know what you want,' she said as he took her head, cupping her ears, and moved it like a melon on his lap."