A benevolent view of India this time

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Paul Theroux speaking during a discussion in Chennai on Thursday.
Paul Theroux speaking during a discussion in Chennai on Thursday.

Sarah Hiddleston

Theroux in his new book tries to map change not only of places and people,

but of oneself

CHENNAI: “Passing judgment is what I do,” American travel writer Paul Theroux, who virtually reinvented the travel writing genre, told the captivated audience of the Madras Book Club on Thursday evening.

But the man unafraid of characterising India as “not a country but a creature… a big horrific creature, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous” in his latest work of fiction The Elephanta Suite, was soft-spoken when it came to commenting on India this time around.

“A travel writer has to be a listener, not a talker,” he said, “not the guest of honour, but invisible, watching.” India, he said, was always fascinating to western writers. Theroux, one of a line of observers of India from Concord, Massachusetts, mapped out what they usually see: Brahma, Vishnu, the Vedas, the Bhaghavad Gita. Not all of them visited India, but they did travel in the mind.

Theroux’s subject was about travelling in this fourth dimension, revisiting a known path, trying to map change not only of places and people, but of oneself. His new book, Ghost train to the Eastern Star, which is out in September, follows the route he took in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975).

This is a more reflective work. “I was a punk back then,” he said. Countries that were closed were now open and countries that were open were now closed. No visits to Iran or Afghanistan. Extra stops in Uzbekistan, Georgia and a place called Perm in Russia that manufactured rockets. “But what was the thing that stayed in my mind? It was me. I had changed. I was older, I won’t say wiser but I had lived longer, and I was able to sit and judge,” he said.

But it took prompting for Theroux to divulge his latest impressions of India. “In the U.S., when you have trouble with your computer you make a phone call and talk to Tony. But Tony’s not Tony, he’s Tarun… he helps me fix my computer and that’s a transformation,” he said. “Who [in the 1970s] would have imagined that Chennai would be a centre for investment,” he quips.

But transformation of what type? BPOs, Bombay’s underbelly and the bestiality of desire are just some of those changes Theroux drew in the India of The Elephanta Suite. But he won’t be pinned down. “No, no,” he tells The Hindu, “it’s really a book about Americans and their misperceptions.”

If travel writing is a distillation of experience, as he says, people will have to wait for more till September.

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