Paul Theroux – Only Toothbrushing Silences Tamils

Travel writer Paul Theroux is in the news again – for his new book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, which re-creates the epic 25,000 mile train odyssey the author first undertook in the mid-1970s and chronicled in the bestseller The Great Railway Bazaar (published in 1975).

Around 1975, Theroux rode trains across India including a trip from Delhi to Madras (now Chennai) on the Grand Trunk Express.

The journey on the GT (as the Grand Trunk Express train is referred to in abbreviated form by locals in Chennai) may have provided Theroux his first introduction to Tamils, one of the more interesting species on Planet Earth.

After observing the Tamils, this is what Theroux had to say about them in The Great Railway Bazaar (P.130-131):

Tamils are black and bony: they have thick straight hair and their teeth are prominent and glister from repeated scrubbings with peeled green twigs. Watch a Tamil going over his teeth with an eight-inch twig and you begin to wonder if he isn’t trying to yank a branch out of his stomach….Tamils are also modest. Before they change their clothes each makes a toga of his bedsheet, and, hopping up and down and working his elbows, he kicks his shoes and trousers off, all the while babbling in that rippling speech that resembles the sputtering of a man singing in the shower. Tamils seem to talk constantly – only toothbrushing silences them. Pleasure for a Tamil is discussing a large matter (life, truth, beauty, “walues”) over a large meal (very wet vegetables studded with chilies and capsicums, and served with damp puris and two mounds of glutinous rice). The Tamils were happy on the Grand Trunk Express: their language was spoken; their food was served; their belongings were dumped helter-skelter, giving the train the customary clutter of a Tamil home.

11 Responses to "Paul Theroux – Only Toothbrushing Silences Tamils"

  1. shuaib68   September 9, 2008 at 6:41 am

    Yeah! what he says is true. We know the noise level when our tamil speaking souls get together in some place, it would be a fish market experience.

    In Sri Lanka too, the Tamil people including the Tamil speaking Muslims have loudspeaker mouths. But, we enjoy bringing in any topic and discussing loudly and pulling more crowds into the discussion we’d be having at the time.

    Wedding, funerals and any social gathering is the same. Funerals are the funniest (Sorry). The lowest class in the Tamil society make a big noise while the body remains lying there for respect by the visitors. Crying in high pitch and wailing to an unsual tune.

    Some of the verse goes as ” Enda Raasa nee engala vittu poyee tiyeee” “Naan ippa yenna seiweyn enda raasaaaa…” “Nee illama naan eppidy waala poreyn enda raasaa…aaahh”

    The middle class, higher affluent families and the educated ones have a more modest form of culture and mannerisms. They have a more of a western oriented culture. But they remain attached to their own unique custom belonging to each group. Their funerals are very silent and slow paced.

    Same goes with the Tamil movies. From start to end you will hear non stop noise. At the Dasavataram movie in theatre the main reason I was going to leave the cinema was due to too much gory sounds. It was too much to bear. My eye is gone seeing the lousy graphics and make-up, my ears are gone hearing the lousy music and sounds and my brain was gone figuring out what the story is all about…


  2. vqtor   September 9, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    so, why they speak so much. So loud, no gaps.
    yah, sometimes it harrasses. Responds:

    Maybe, it’s a cultural thing. Hard to say.

    Maybe Theroux is wrong.

  3. gandhiji   September 9, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    so, why they speak so much. So loud, no gaps.
    yah, sometimes it harrasses.

    What language was that? Sounds almost like English. Responds:

    Funny 🙂

  4. gandhiji   September 9, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Theroux’s BS seems to border on racism.

    only toothbrushing silences them”..

    That’s not funny putting down a whole race like that. If it was in the movie Borat, I’d take it as a joke.. is this book meant to be serious or just a satire?

    two mounds of glutinous rice did make me smile.

    It has got some harsh reviews. being one.. Responds:

    1. The NYT review you cite above is for the new book, not the older book which inspired the new book.

    2. The older book (The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975 and from which we put out a small excerpt) was very well received and a big hit. Most reviews on Amazon (including some by desis) are positive.

    As Venugapal Vasudevan wrote in the his Amazon review of The Great Railway Bazaar, Some may find this book insulting, as it is fairly blunt about the people’s idiosyncrasies. I for one do not expect literature to be politically correct (and vice-versa).

    3. You write above: is this book meant to be serious or just a satire?

    Not a satire…as we said in the post it belongs to the genre of travel writing.

    4. You write above: Theroux’s BS seems to border on racism

    To a laconic New Englander, Tamils could well come across as garrulous.

    Our overall take on the book – good but not great.

  5. gandhiji   September 9, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    looks like he has quite a reputation for not being PC.

    Not related to the book, but gives some perspective on how much of a whiny b****** he is 🙂

    if only I had time (away from scouring box office reports), I can develop the habit of reading.. seems like an interesting hobby. It will atleast help me get some eloquence to pointlessly debate with araj. where is hell is he.. like Rajinikanth movies, his posts seem very far apart. Responds:

    Yes, we were were aware of Theroux turning on Naipaul.

    As we all now know, the Nobel Committee didn’t take note of Theroux’ rants.

    N.B.: Sometimes your comments are misidentified by the blog software as spam (we have no idea why). We then despam it by approving it. Then we unapprove it so that we can add our response. Why are we telling you this – If you don’t see a response to your comment, pl hit refresh or better still wait for a few minutes & hit refresh again.

  6. gandhiji   September 9, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    I barely know Naipaul.. hadn’t even heard the name Theroux before.. your site is helping me develop my general knowledge.

    Is that problem specific to my username? The spam filter is probably confusing (understandably) my prolific commenting with spam .. took over the spammero-uno title from Dilip and his clones.. but now Shuaib is threatening to steal my coveted title. Responds:

    1. Naipaul is interesting…we’ve read two books: Million Mutinies and an older book set in the 1960s or 1970s whose title we can’t remember now. BTW, Sir.V.S.Naipaul is also a Nobel Laureate now.

    Theroux is not as well known. We reviewed one of Theroux’ books on this blog (probably before you came on board) Elephanta Suite.

    2. No, we don’t think the spam issue has anything to do with the number of your comments.

    Dileep and his avatars sometimes post as many, if not more, comments but he/they almost never make it to the spam list.

  7. shuaib68   September 10, 2008 at 4:46 am

    Simply to say I have no knowledge about Theroux. How do you spell this name…? “The-rou” or “Therox(Like Xerox)”???

    Anyway, maybe he’s has some racistic inclination in his work. But, what I did agree on his issue was the noise level in our (Sri Lankan) tamil culture. But, it’s an accepted norm and part of the culture although, I sometimes ridicule it (Literally).

    The other facts which I didn’t discuss about our Tamils is that they are very hardworking and friendly with mild manners.

    The Tamils were pushed too far to take-up arms against the state due to many ill treatment meted out to them in so many ways. For the political gains the majority Sinahala’s raised nationalistic issues in favour of their community alienating the minorities. That was the beginning.

    The majority race, the Sinhala/Buddhists (few or them)discriminated the minorities in so many ways that led to the present crisis level in Sri Lanka.

    The Sinhala people also, a majority of them, are peace loving hospitable people.

    Even now Tamils try to integrate with all the other communities co-existing and to make their livelihood with peace and harmony. They’re succeeding in that.

    But, still there are some (few) elements in both (Sinhala & Tamil) communities resorting to militancy & violence. Responds:

    You write above: How do you spell this name…? “The-rou” or “Therox(Like Xerox)”???

    Guess, you meant How do you pronounce the name

    According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Theroux is pronounced “Thor-ew”

  8. shuaib68   September 10, 2008 at 4:51 am

    Gandhiji, I’m so sorry if I had anything to do with your “coveted title” being threatened by me. I am innocent!!

    What is your “coveted title”??? please if you may….

  9. gandhiji   September 10, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Shuaib, I post comments a lot.. you also seem to post a lot. “Most prolific poster” title..

    I think my use of italics and bold tags may have something to do with my posts being considered as spam.. some times I forget to close the tag(because of senility)

  10. shuaib68   September 11, 2008 at 1:40 am

    Oh I see! but that’s a fitting title only to you. I’m in no way near you. You are an expert in this. So, even I propose that the title should prevail in its same position under your name. I’m happy about it.

    About Theroux:
    I have very little knowledge about books. I’m far away from novels. I’m mostly after going through general stuff and some of the current political news. it’s due to the profession of mine (Grpahic Designing)that I don’t get much leisure time.

    My leisure – I watch TV and movies. That interest too wouldn’t give me the type of mental pleasure that is expected from them with certain (or all) Tamil movies nowadays.

    Like a gypsy, hopping through the web to find proper medium on how to venge my anger on being taken for a ride in the name of cinema by the Tamil “Cinema”, I finally came and stopped near SearchIndia.

    Thank you, SearchIndia for being so bold to say what should be said. Responds:


  11. shuaib68   September 11, 2008 at 2:53 am

    One more thing Gandhiji, I’m not an assassin waiting to bump you off. You are blessed to continue your freedom struggle (Dasavatharam Vs Sivaji) and other conflicts in Thamil Sinimaaaaaaahh..ugh…caugh!!! Sorry.

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