empty into a basin
and are still
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are many beautiful and wonderous sights that come to mind when one thinks of Europe: forests, meadows, alpine vistas, or cities of stunning architecture. However, there are other sights that one wouldn’t expect at all: tundra, jungle, desert, or steppe, but those are the unexpected destinations that Hunt takes his reader. In some cases, a destination under discussion doesn’t meet the technical definitions for said ecosystem, but they’re the closest that Europe has to offer, and that’s enough to make them outlandish.
The book takes the reader on a tour of four uncharacteristic ecosystems of Europe: Cairngorms arctic tundra in northern Scotland, Poland’s “jungle” – the forest primeval of Bialowieza, Spain’s Tabernas desert, and the Hungarian Puszta (i.e. the Pannonian Steppe.) For each of these places, the reader is treated not only to vivid description of the locale and its flora and fauna, but also some fascinating folklore, cultural peculiarities, and indigenous mysteries. In Scotland, this involves inexplicable reindeer and the legend of the Big Grey Man. In Poland and Belarus, we learn about legendary forest folk deities and about the last Soviet standing. In Spain, one gets a lesson in Spaghetti Westerns. In Hungary we see birders, neo-Nazis, and Central Asian immigrants all traipsing the same ground.
I found this book to be an engaging read. It helps raise consciousness about climate change without collapsing into a gloomy doom-fest. This discussion is most notable in the most extreme ecosystems, Cairngorms and Tabernas, but most of the intense discussion is saved for a brief epilogue entitled “The Last Snow.” The book offers rudimentary maps, but relies entirely on text to paint a picture, but I felt the author did a great job of bringing the places to life through words.
If you’re interested in learning more about a few of the globe’s lesser-known natural settings, I’d highly recommend this book.
View all my reviews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.
Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)
As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]
Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.
In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.
I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.
View all my reviews
Out: September 30, 2020
If good travel writing is virtually travel, then this essay anthology mixes global travel with time travel. It’s a collection of travel (or at least locale-centric) writings previously published in “The Hudson Review.” While the oldest of the included pieces consists of translations of Tocqueville’s journals from his trip to America, the bulk of the works are from the twentieth century to recent years (and almost all from latter twentieth century onward.) This temporal aspect offers the reader unique insight into how various destinations have changed – particularly if it’s a place one has visited. Only about one-fifth of the essays feature locations in the United States, and the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, and Oceania are all represented among the twenty-five pieces presented.
While most of the pieces are straightforward travel essays, there are a couple that – while focused on location – aren’t what one might typically consider travel writing. One of these, which is probably the most evocative piece of writing in the book, is called “Blue Grotto” and it tells the story of the author being regularly taken to a bar by her father when she was a child [an occurrence that could probably not happen at the time of publication, let alone today, without child services becoming involved.] The other outlier is entitled, “Making it Uglier to the Airport,” and while it sounds like it would be about cutting it close while traveling, it’s actually a review essay about changing architectural notions regarding aesthetics.
The other essays include not only run-of-the-mill style travel writing that uses vibrant descriptions to make a location sound appealing (e.g. see the pieces on County Cork and the Hudson River,) but also include a number of essays about what might be termed “dark tourism” in today’s parlance. Dark tourism is travel to places that are or have been (in recent history) war-torn, crime-ridden, disaster damaged, or otherwise prone to turn up in the nightly news. The essays on Cambodia and Haiti (of which there are two) are prime examples. There are also pieces that fall somewhere in-between, featuring destinations that are a bit rough or challenging, but which are by no means dangerous. A great example of this – oddly enough – was a story of travel to Fiji, but only because the author chose to stay in the home of tribesmen of a remote village.
As a traveler, I found this book to be fascinating. As I mentioned, I got a lot out of the fact that it offered insight into temporal, as well as geographic, destinations. For example, I’d made a similar trip to Cambodia, but about twenty years after the one made by the author, and so it was intriguing to read about similarities and differences. (The trip in the book was much sooner after the disastrous reign of Pol Pot, and so there were many differences.) If you enjoy travel writing, I’d recommend you give this book a look. I was impressed with how broad a range of locales were explored.
This is a collection of travel essays exploring locales within America and abroad. The fifteen essays collected are reprints of periodical publications.
As Benz describes destinations and tells travel tales, he often presents local history such as a murder mystery in the Everglades, the fate of the Donner Party, the truth about the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and the nuclear test at Trinity, New Mexico. But not all of the essays mix history lessons into the travelogue, and some of the most evocative pieces touch on the local landscape in interesting ways such as walking a postman’s route in Havana or camping in Wyoming.
Some travel writing drills down on a single destination and other works spread out over a diverse set of locations. Benz’s approach is somewhere in between. While, except for a couple chapters set in Havana, the essays are about varied locations, only a couple (i.e. the ones on the Everglades and Moldova) stand out as far afield of the rest. Of the seven international essays, three feature Cuba and two Guatemala, and of the eight US essays, all but one is set in the West and three present Wyoming.
The essay collection is divided into two parts. The first eight essays are about locations within the United States, and the last seven describe foreign travels. I found the organization to be smartly arranged, with each of the two parts beginning an ending on essays that are among the strongest in the collection. In the case of Part I, the collection starts with a piece set in the Everglades which brings to life a historical murder, and it ends with a visit to the Trinity Site where the first nuclear test detonation took place.
With respect to the international chapters, they open with a visit to Moldova. The last travel essay I read about Moldova was in Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss.” If you’re wondering why a book on the happiest places on Earth would feature Moldova, it’s for the perhaps ironic but definitely instructive reason that Moldova often comes up as among the LEAST happy countries. Benz presents a similar portrait of Moldova without explicitly taking the dismal nature of the country as his theme. The last two chapters discuss the author’s time in Guatemala, and the last discusses the poetry scene in a country in a country under political upheaval.
The book has a prologue in verse and an extended epilogue in prose.
I’d recommend this book for readers of travel writing, particularly those interested in the American West and Central America. I found the writing to be both skillful and readable, and that the author recognized the value of an intriguing story.
When Tony Hawks and his friend Kevin see a man hitching with a refrigerator one night, a debate ensues that results in a ₤100 bet that Hawks can circumnavigate Ireland entirely by hitching rides–while carting a fridge with him. (When Kevin insists that no one could get a lift with a fridge, Hawk’s response sets the book’s tone and theme, “They could in Ireland, it’s a magical place.”) Showing a lack of business acumen, Hawks purchases a compact dorm fridge for ₤130, and sets off from Dublin in a counterclockwise fashion. The rules of the bet stipulate that Hawks must visit Tory island at the extreme north and Clear Island at the extreme south but otherwise can use whatever route he likes as long as he gets around only by hitchhiking, he keeps the fridge with him during his travels, and it takes him less than a month. Hilarity ensues.
Hawks’ book is a hoot. If there is anything that he makes funnier than a person questioning his intelligence / sanity for carting a fridge about, it’s his description of the people who politely ignore the absurdity of him hitching with a fridge. There’s also a fair amount of sour grapes humor as sometimes it seems the fridge has gained more of a celebrity status than the author. Of course, not all the humor is fridge-centric; some of it takes place in pubs with the people the gregarious Hawks meets along the way. The book mixes travelogue with humor writing, and nicely captures both the scenery of Ireland and the national character of the Irish. The book also has its serious moments, particularly as it draws to a close and the author realizes his adventure is at an ends.
In the end, Hawks proves that it can be done—in theory, at least. It should be pointed out that Hawks had the benefit of appearing on a national radio show regularly as well as on TV at the start and finish of his trip. Because of this, people were often on the lookout for him and likely more willing to give him a lift than if he were the average schlub. On the other hand, the need to meet scheduled appointments with media is one of the sources of tension in the book because they usually involve close calls. It seems it’s not always easy to call in from remote locations in rural Ireland while on the move, and the best example may be Hawks’ attempt to make it to Dublin on the last day to meet a PR event that a radio show had set up. He puts the reader on the edge of his seat, despite the lack of any real peril (it is just a guy trying to make media events related to his absurd adventure, after all.)
I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested in traveling in Ireland, it’s a light read to give you some ideas about places you might want to hit (or miss.) However, on its humor alone it’s worth a read even for readers who don’t normally read travel writing.
This book tells two tales in parallel, connected by one theme: travel for love. The author, Julian Smith, recounts the experience of Ewart Grogan, an English explorer whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. Grogan traveled the length of Africa from South to North and recounted his experience in a book entitled “From Cape to Cairo.” The purpose of his grand endeavor was to prove his worth as man. Grogan was in love with a woman whose family was of higher station, and he believed that if he could only do what had never been done before, then the objections to his “marrying up” would dissolve.
The other story is Smith’s own attempt to retrace Grogan’s route across the length of the continent. While Smith doesn’t have to prove his worth, his motivations are more complex and tied up with his engagement to be married. Maybe Smith’s motivation is best summed up as a desire to prove to himself and / or his fiancé that he had sufficient commitment and fortitude to get him through rough times—a characteristic relevant to both marriage and crossing some of the world’s least developed countries.
Of his own admission, Smith’s journey was to be far less arduous than Grogan’s by virtue of the fact that he’d be traveling by taxis, motorcycles, buses, and ferries. Grogan and other 19th century explorers were subject to hazards far graver and more ever-present. For one thing, in Grogan’s day virtually everybody who spent any significant time in Africa got malaria. It wasn’t a question of if but when and how seriously. Even if you escaped malaria, there were myriad other tropical diseases to bring one to one’s knees. Next, there was the tribal environment in which one would travel through dozens of tribal territories, all of whose chiefs expected tribute and many of which were outright hostile. For Smith, rule of law was present in some form or fashion along most of his route, such that no one could just murder him and get off scot-free. There was also the risk of crew desertions that could cripple an expedition. Traveling parties had to carry huge amounts of goods from surveying equipment to gifts to medicines to food stuffs. Still, they had to obtain many of the party’s needs along the route. Among other things, this meant hunting animals that weren’t as docile as livestock. Anything less than an instant kill meant having to trudge into tall grass after a wounded creature that had a far greater killing capacity at close range.
This isn’t to say that Smith’s journey was adventure free. Anyone who has traveled in Africa knows that getting from place to place remains a slow and exhausting process. And many of the things that undermined Grogan’s trip also undermined Smith’s, e.g. the author suffered extended fever. But the most devastating factor for Smith’s travels was the fact that parts of Sudan were lawless and a brutal war was being fought. While Grogan barely managed to drag himself through the swampy landscape, Smith was unable to proceed overland because of the conflict. In telling of his travels, Smith discusses many of the dilemma’s that traveler’s face today (e.g. to give people money or not, how to contend with bureaucrats.) Among the travels that modern-day readers might be interested in is Smith’s visit to a gorilla sanctuary.
I enjoyed this mix of travelogue and history. The book gives one insight into the changing nature of the world and, particularly, what was once called the Dark Continent. [Note: while that may sound either racist or awash in a negativity bias, I’ve read that the reason it was called that was that when the 19th century explorers were traveling through much of the continent was unmapped, i.e. blacked out.]
I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in travel in Africa—past or present.
Bashō was a traveler, and much of his poetry came from what he witnessed and experienced on the road. This volume contains four travelogues (each containing interspersed haiku); the most famous of these being the title piece, but also including: “Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones,” “The Knapsack Notebook,” and “Sarashima Travelogue.” In addition to the travel writings, there is a section of select Bashō poems. The word “travelogue” may create a misapprehension. These weren’t diaries of the minutiae of his travels. They offer a poet’s eye view of highlights and insights, and—of course—interspersed poems. [There is a term for this genre of prose mixed with poetry, haibun.]
Matsuo Bashō was born in Iga-Ueno (famously a center of ninja warriors during the Warring States Period), and traveled extensively within Japan. He lived from 1644 to 1694, during the time between the end of the Warring States Period and the Meiji Restoration that brought Japan into modernity. It was a period of relative peace ruled by a military dictatorship, lying in the long shadow of war. Zen touches are prevalent throughout Bashō’s writings, but so are references to Chinese philosophy and history, Shinto, not to mention the Japanese poets who preceded him.
In addition to the aforementioned content, the book includes some nice ancillary features. First, there is a Translator’s Introduction that helps provide necessary context about Bashō’s life and times, as well as offering insight into what was valued in Japanese poetry of this time–including influences of systems like Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism. There is an Afterword describing the last years of Bashō’s life, as well as end-notes and a bibliography. Notes are useful for this type of book because most readers face both cultural and historical barriers to understanding (myself included.) As for graphics, there is a map to help readers grasp the extent of the poet’s travels. There is also a chronology to help keep the events of Bashō’s life—most notably the timeline of his travels—straight.
I’m not sure how the translator’s (Sam Hamill) version compares to an ideal, but I enjoyed it. For example, Bashō refers to an innkeeper called Hotoke Gozaemon, which Hamill translates as “Joe Buddha.” I suspect that is an example of veering away from literal translation to communicate an essence in a way that is readily grasped by the English-language reader. Some of the haiku translations seem clunky, but it’s extremely hard to put haiku into English, so I can’t say it could be avoided. English syllables and words can be chunky and our grammar doesn’t lend itself to being sparse. I will say that a nice feature of the “Selected Haiku” section is that it includes the Romanized Japanese poem under the translation. This isn’t done throughout the haibun “travelogues,” but it’s done in that last section. The main benefit of this is allowing the reader to hear the sound of the poem, but it can also allow one to compare different translations of the same poem.
There are several translations of these same writings available (often gathered together into a single volume like this because it makes for an acceptable length book–rather than the pamphlets that the individual haibun would be.) This is the only version that I’ve read to date, and so I can’t compare it to others. However, I was quite pleased with this version and found it to be both readable and evocative.
I’d recommend this book for haiku lovers, travelers, and those who want to see what awesome travel writing can look like.
We’d made our arrangements. We’d fly into Srinagar and spend a week there to acclimatize and sight-see before a trek that would take us from Sonamarg to Naranag (fyi: this direction was reversed the night before the trek because of bandhs (strikes) that blocked the road from Srinagar to Sonamarg.) After Kashmir we’d head to Ladakh. Standing on the Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh’s greatest risk would be mountain sickness–a risk we’d curtail by acclimatizing in the lower altitudes of Kashmir. On the other hand, Kashmir had the potential to be dicey, but there’d only been infrequent violence in recent years–and never directed against foreigners or tourists. One didn’t even have to get special permits to visit anymore.
That was about a week before a militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, was killed. Wani’s death triggered a wave of outrage leading to violence. The death toll crept into tens of people. The violence mostly consisted of rock-throwing by young men directed at military, paramilitary, and police forces, and the response of those units involving lethal and less-than-lethal weapons (the latter occasionally were not so “less than,” as was seen with the pellet guns which caused a fatality, reinvigorated the conflict–unbeknownst to us–as we were on the trail.)
We were on the horns of a dilemma. Should we dump our plans and either go to Ladakh for the entire time or someplace else like Kyrgyzstan–which had been on our short list when planning the trip. Either way, we’d loose a little bit of money, but safety wouldn’t be a concern. If we went straight to Leh (11,000 ft+ / 3500m) we’d be less eased into the altitude. Or, should we hope that the troubles would blow over and Kashmir would return to a safe status quo.
It was impossible to tell whether events would settle down or take a turn for the worse. Furthermore, the Indian government took an approach that was–for a democracy–baffling. They shut down the local news outlets, making it even more difficult to find out what was going on on the ground. They also shut down phone and internet communications such that we couldn’t get in touch with our trekking company for several days. We could get in touch with our hotel because many of the locals have lived through past episodes and know how to set up communications so as to avoid being put out of business by government shutoffs. However, asking individuals who have an incentive to keep one coming regardless of the situation, one never knows how much one can trust their suggestions. We dealt with reputable operators, and they were ultimately a primary source of information, but one can never tell in the beginning.
I can only assume the Indian government’s thought process went something like this: 1.) We can’t suggest that people don’t travel to Kashmir because we’ll be seen as pounding the final nail in the coffin of Kashmiri tourism for a season that will already be dismal. This will only exacerbate the current problems because the Indian government is largely blamed for how backwards and under-performing Kashmir is. (Note: while there is wide variation as to what Kashmiris seek–some want to remain part of India but with more autonomy and access to resources, others want to be an independent country, and still others want to be part of Pakistan, none seem to be pleased with the current state of governance.) 2.) On the other hand, we can’t recommend that people travel to Kashmir either because we’ll look like huge putzes if we encourage tourism and travelers gets hurt–we may even face a crisis of confidence in tourism nationally. Therefore, lets just be as opaque as possible. We’ll try to prevent anyone from knowing anything about what’s going on so that whatever decision they make we can say we had no part in it.
Given the dearth of information, our decision ultimately came down to whether we wanted to be optimistic or pessimistic. We chose to be optimistic. I guess that was the right course, because ultimately the trip worked out. However, we did have to be flexible and make a lot of adjustments–often at the last minute. However, we didn’t loose much–or any–money because of the cancellation policies of the businesses we engaged.
First of all, there were some places that we’d planned to visit that were strictly no go. We’d planned to do a day trip to Gulmarg and an overnight trip to Pahalgam. Needless to say, we would have seen a lot more of Srinagar, itself, had it not been closed off. Basically, we could go anywhere we wanted to in the Dal Lake area, including the numerous gardens, but trips into Srinagar Old Town were not happening. We ended up taking an overnight trip to Sonamarg. We didn’t plan to do this because we were to see that town as part of our trek. However, there’s not seven days worth of Dal Lake to see (unless you really want to just relax), so we ended up making two visits to Sonamarg (which also doesn’t warrant that much time, but we couldn’t get anywhere else, and Sonamarg was safe and accessible.)
Second, we could only travel in the dead of night. You probably read the word “curfew” and thought, “Oh, that means that no one can be out after dark.” In Kashmir that logic was reversed, and everybody does everything after dark. As mentioned, drivers wouldn’t drive many stretches of road. However, the places they would go (e.g. safe and secure Sonamarg and locations along the Srinagar-Leh Highway, NH1D) they would only drive overnight. I had trouble grasping this logic, all though it seemed to work. It seemed to me that it would be easier to conduct an ambush in the dark and get away with it. I was told that it wasn’t ambushes that anyone was worried about. Drivers were worried about rock throwers breaking their windshields. Fair enough. It still didn’t make sense. It seemed that if one were going to make mischief, one would set an alarm for 1 am or 5 am and place your basket of rocks next to the bed. The roadblocks created what one might call a target rich environment because all the vehicles were bunched up together. Ultimately, I concluded that the reason it worked was that the rock-throwers lived with their mommies and daddies, and they were tucked in in their jammies during the hours in question.
During our first full day in Srinagar, there was an Indian Minister visiting to help ease tensions. We, therefore, didn’t realize that the vast numbers of police and paramilitary forces were unusual–even relative to the current heightened state of security. The next day, it was a lot less intimidating as there were not AK-47-toting guards every fifty feet along Dal Lake Boulevard.
Ultimately, we never felt unsafe or saw any violence firsthand. Our most unnerving moment came traveling along the Srinagar-Leh highway in the middle of the night when we came upon a huge gathering of people blocking the road. The were just pashmina merchants and restaurateurs who were getting no business, and who were trying to stir up some business in the middle of the night. Needless to say, I suspect few were in the mood for 2 am shopping or eating. However, generally, while the locals were desperate because their tourism season had been strangled, the Kashmiri’s are relatively laid-back compared to much of India, so even the touts weren’t unusually annoying.
We were told not to tell locals that we were American, and we complied with that suggestion. (This obviously doesn’t apply to anyone who can ask to see your passport–e.g. security forces, nor to the sparsely arrayed other tourists–including India tourists–who are more likely to be able to differentiate accents and for whom there is nothing to be gained by deceit.) It’s not that there was any animosity against America, but rather there is a thought that mighty America can fix any problem that it puts its mind to. My wife is of Hungarian origin, so this didn’t even require a lie, per se, as long as she did the talking.
I guess the question of interest to readers is whether they should travel to Kashmir or not? If you can tolerate your plans being changed (or are the type that don’t make plans at all) you’ll be alright. I don’t regret the trip, and I think we had an educational and enjoyable experience.
That said, you may want to adjust downward any times your guidebooks recommends for your visit because you’ll end up bored if your travel is restricted. You may also want to allow more time for travel because only traveling at night means you may lose a day trying to get out of town. I should point out that the hotels were very accommodating with regard to the early check-in necessitated by this travel situation. However, it is a bit more exhausting having to travel through the night.
If you’re not familiar with the nature of the Kashmir conflict, here is a handy timeline from the BBC to help clarify it.
The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas that feature Westerners out of their league in India. As an American living in India, I suspect anyone who’s had this experience will recognize instances in which—for good, bad, or a mix of each—one is swallowed whole by some feature of India that one couldn’t possibly have anticipated. The novellas aren’t interconnected, except by way of the themes that run through them and Theroux’s trademark use of what I’ll call—for lack of a better term—cameo references. These aren’t his own cameo appearances in the book—as he’s also been known to do—but rather minor instances in which the lives of the characters in one story brush up against those in another.
The first of the novellas is called “Monkey Hill,” and it features a tourist couple who are staying at an upscale resort that’s near a town with a large Hanuman temple. (Hanuman is the “monkey-god” of Hinduism, a popular deity with a monkey-like face and a man-like body who features prominently in the epic entitled Ramayana.) The resort grounds also have monkeys, and so there are two potential meanings to the title. Like many wealthy travelers to India, the couple isn’t really experiencing India—though, like the characters in the other stories, they end up doing so in a major way by the story’s end. Experiencing India in unexpected ways is a central theme across the three works. The couple’s only real experience of India comes through each of their respective dalliances with locals that are carried out unbeknownst to the other. (I would point out that characters who aren’t particularly high in moral fiber are another prevailing theme across these stories, but really such characters are a hallmark of Theroux’s writing in general.)
“The Gateway of India,” as Bombay visitors might suspect, is set in that city and the waterfront attraction features prominently in the novel. The lead in this story is a business traveler who’s staying in the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. (The hotel overlooks the Gateway and was allegedly built by a pissed off J.N. Tata who was irate because, as a Parsi, he wasn’t allowed to stay in any of the upscale hotels because they exclusively catered to Westerners. As a “screw-you,” he built the most elegant hotel in the country at the time.) At the story’s beginning, our business traveler is a caricature of business travelers to India. He’s too scared to eat or drink anything that isn’t from a five-star hotel—and even then he’s wary. He’s filled with disgust whenever he rides through town or interacts with locals in the street. By turns, he’s transformed over the course of the story. Like the couple in “Monkey Hill” his introduction to the real India comes from a sexual liaison with a native. That said, this story features the most positive character transformation of the three stories. This is the one “feel-good” transformation of the three.
The final novella, entitled “The Elephant God,” begins in Mumbai, but is largely set in Bangalore. This story features yet another class of traveler to India–the backpacker. This lead is a young woman who is traveling on a tight budget while staying at an ashram. Beginning the story in Mumbai allows the reader to see how the backpacker loses her traveling companion, an issue that will prove crucial to the story’s resolution. As one might expect of a backpacker, our protagonist has had a truer experience of India than the wealthy protagonists of the other stories. She knows a little of the indigenous culture and how real people behave faced with real world events. In fact, there’s an intriguing piece of the story line that involves a job she gets teaching English to employees of a call center for a multinational corporation. [It should strain credulity that she’d be able to get a job on the visa she would have, but this is India.] At any rate, she begins to realize that—by teaching the call-takers to speak to American customers in a way that will make Americans comfortable—she’s essentially turning them rude—all their endearing deferential mannerisms fade in the face of her teachings. She feels bad about this. The titular reference involves an elephant and its handler (mahout) that she befriends. (In two years living in Bangalore, I’ve not seen an elephant living inside the city, but I can’t say that I found this aspect of the story unbelievable. I have seen, for example, the equally improbable camel or two.) The elephant isn’t a major feature of the story until the climax, though visits do recur.
I enjoyed these stories and would recommend The Elephanta Suite–particularly for any Westerners who have spent, or plan to spend, substantial time in India. The book may not surprise or inform such readers, but it’ll probably resonate with them.