The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
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