There is a certain romance in transition, of which writers of travel especially, are keenly aware. Paul Theroux senses this more acutely than many of his contemporaries. In The Elephanta Suite, his new book, he turns to the mental transition of American visitors to India—first intimidated, then hesitant, and finally accepting. It is a familiar journey and, once this is understood, all that remains is the story’s telling.
At various times during their travels, his American protagonists wonder what to make of India. In the first story—there are three—Audie Blunden, a middle-aged businessman, and his wife, Beth, linger on at an exclusive spa for weeks after they were supposed to leave. Audie, not quite transformed yet, contemplates, “…one minute it was budget projections and stock analysis, and the next minute it was horoscopes and arranged marriages and the wonder of drinking your own whiz”. After encountering an evasive Indian couple, he grapples with the appropriate words to describe Indians: “lavish, pious, talkative, slippery, insincere, holy”. Beth responds to her husband’s attempts, “…that’s the trouble with you—you actually expect them to make sense.”
Soon, the Americans realize that India’s touch can be tricky. They begin to slip out of character. Audie resists a brief affair, and Theroux writes, “I’ve lived enough, he thought, entering the mind of someone about to be reincarnated…” The problem with chronicling thought processes precisely is that they are rarely precise. And so, “entering the mind of someone about to be reincarnated” is worthy, but the impression of awareness that the writer creates here seems made up.
Out of character: A Boston executive finds peace in Mumbai’s alleys
Beth, meanwhile, undergoes a transformation one night in her bed, with the thoughts washing over her ably documented by the writer: “…I have not lived, I have known only my husband, I have spent my whole life waiting; this is my life.” The dissatisfaction is meant to show, but the writer refuses to get out of our way. Even when the characters are quiet, the author pipes in with a paragraph so removed from the narrative it could only be his own voice: “India was as near to life and death as it was possible to be, on earth. But it was not one or the other: here was life in death, and death in life.” And with this, Beth falls asleep. There are pages of this.
There are rare paragraphs, though, that spring to life when Theroux’s Americans, usually reflecting on a past life, lead the reader through their dark thoughts. Audie, remembering the women he had, reflects: “The women he’d known were, each of them, different, but what made them sisters was their same question, always spoken in the darkness, at a moment when he felt fulfilled and complete. Where is this going? He kept this answer to himself, because it was devastating.”
The Elephanta Suite: Penguin, 290 pages, Rs408.
The stories in The Elephanta Suite are connected by their characters crossing each other’s paths and that, by some coincidence, they occupy hotel rooms called The Elephanta Suite. The other thing they all have in common is that Theroux knows their minds, and so he spells out every insecurity, joy and realization so explicitly that there remains no hint of mystery. They’ve explained themselves so completely there’s nothing left to say.
The second story is about a Boston executive so fearful of India he refuses to leave his Mumbai hotel, but the country’s charms call him out, and his downfall begins. By the end, his assistant is his boss. During this joyless decline, the American renounces his possessions, wavers between returning home and staying here, falls in with a prostitute and her madam, and finds himself emotionally dependent on the needs of two young women. Like the other stories, this too ends unfortunately, in a uniquely “Indian” way, for its main characters.
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