India is both a horror show and a heavenly experience at the same time.
We should know. After all, we’ve watched this confoundingly complex country for over four decades -Â at close quarters first and then from a distance.
And Paul Theroux knows India well too. He has obviously spent some time there, in the 1970s and presumably recently as well.
And many of Theroux’ observations on the country such as its pettifogging culture, the legal delays, the hypocrisy, the red tape, repressed sexualityÂ et al are very acute in his new book The Elephanta Suite.
India attracted you, fooled you, subverted you, then, if it did not succeed in destroying you with the unxpected, it left you so changed as to be unrecognizable….Or it ignited a fury in you….Or it roused your pity and left you with a sadness that clung like a fever.
While Theroux’ charactersÂ see through the veneer of hypocrisy in India and are occasionally cheated and sometimes disappointed, they also feel a strong connection to this fascinating and frequently infuriating land.
Although many gems of observation on India and Indians lurk in The Elephanta Suite, it’s still not a gripping book. At least not for Indians like us with one foot in India and the other in the West.
Don’t get us wrong. Elephanta Suite is not a dull book at all.
It’s just that we expected so much more from Paul Theroux, the fiction and travel writer and one-time buddy of V.S.Naipaul.
Unlike Gregory David Roberts‘ Shantaram or Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, two epic novels set in India, Elephanta Suite does not completely take hold of you.
Size is one reason. The other books are several hundred pages longer than Elephanta Suite and give the authors more room to play.
Second, Gregory David Roberts and Vikram Chandra are more intimate with India, having spent greater time in the country. India has seeped into their bones while Theroux is merely familiar with India.
Even for a work of fiction, there are mistakes galore in Elephanta Suite.
For instance, Gurgaon is not on the Mumbai-Bangalore train route, Jains do not eat Uttapams usually and Mylapore is not near Mumbai.
Elephanta Suite is not a single story but three novellas set in Mumbai, Bangalore and at a spa near Rishikesh in North India.
All three novellas center around American visitors to India.
The first novella is about two middle-aged vacationers at the Agni spa near Rishikesh, the second about a fortyish Boston lawyer in Mumbai and the third centers around a young woman in Bangalore.
The main characters – Audie and Beth Blunden in Monkey Hill, Dwight Huntsinger in The Gateway of India and Alice Durand in The Elephant God – are everydayÂ American figures.
But they change, as does anyone coming in contact with this tumultous, paradoxical country.
Audie and Beth Blunden in the spa impulsively seek furtive sex with Indians, Dwight Huntsinger gets comfy with a bunch of whores in the gullies of Mumbai and Alice makes friends with an elephant amidst the software and outsourcing firms and the Sai Baba ashram of Bangalore.
We found the second and third novellas to have more life in them.
As Alice in the final novella The Elephant God observes:
From a distance, India was splendor; up close, misery.
Very true indeed.