Paul Theroux’s image of India is more in sync with a colonial-era perspective.
The best way to keep that sinking feeling at bay while exploring The Elephanta Suite is to forget that its author ever won prestigious awards for fiction. With the bar thus lowered, it is still possible to salvage from the wreck the odd ironic cameo or the rare poignant moment that travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux handled with consummate ease in the good old days.
Except that in this collection of stories, the quest for such gems becomes a treasure hunt of sorts through a wasteland of false notes and insufferable smugness, crowned by an open distaste for all things Indian.
Theroux’s latest work of fiction is a triptych of independent tales with shared elements. India, as a backdrop, constitutes one; white Americans of diverse ages and temperaments who experience it first-hand, the other. Conjoining the unrelated narratives thematically is a series of elephant references and anecdotes that culminate in a blood-curdling climax, with a pachyderm becoming the dispenser of poetic justice.
Given that the stories are littered with contemporary allusions to call centres, outsourcing deals and emailed messages and include a sly take on Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid controversy, the slant of the first two, “Monkey Hill” and “The Gateway of India”, is disconcertingly anachronistic.
For the image of India they project is more in sync with a colonial-era perspective on the country as “a secular hallucinatory underworld” of grotty, grasping multitudes, of “actual grinning demons and foul unbreathable air…”
If this consistently bigoted worldview belongs to the characters alone, their creator probably needs a gentle reminder that it’s neither fashionable nor fair in this era of globalisation to project the well-travelled Westerner as so hopelessly insular and naïve.
Admittedly, “The Elephant God”, featuring Alice, a young, enlightened American who takes up a job in Electronics City, Bangalore, to pay her way, is not only more contemporary in feel, but focussed and finely textured.
But the cheap stunt that Theroux pulls by way of a denouement violently disturbs the narrative’s delicate nuances. If there is a message somewhere, it seems to be this: in a hell on earth like India, be receptive, generous and open-minded at your own risk.
In consonance with this mood, Theroux’s depiction of the denizens of this Inferno is equally sepia-tinted. They are either servile, yet endlessly demanding waifs, like Indru in the first story, rapacious predators like Amitabh in “The Elephant God” who seems almost supernatural in his improbable power to bend a strong-willed white woman’s destiny to his dictates and occasionally, both, like Winky Vellore, the opportunistic socialite of “The Gateway of India”.
Not to deny credit where it is due, the episode involving the latter constitutes one of the book’s most memorable vignettes and is vintage Theroux.
But it serves no great purpose in the larger context, except to indulge the author’s penchant for wielding the scalpel to telling effect. Even a character with a promise of inherent dignity like Shah, the Jain business tycoon, becomes a travesty, mocked as much for his accent as for his abstemious ways.
In fact, faulty English, the bane, apparently, of every second Indian in Theroux’s world, appears to be the author’s bête noire. All the more reason, why a seasoned travel writer like him should have known that an Indian employee of a multi-star resort and spa is hardly likely to share the same brand of pidgin English — that too, with strong West Indian inflections — with an illiterate teenage prostitute from the gutters of Mumbai.
Theroux is scarcely more adept at dealing with non-Indians. The middle-aged Blundens of the opening story are so unappealing that when their half-hearted transgressions take them inexorably towards a gruesome end, we don’t much care.
Dwight Huntsinger, the chief protagonist of the second story and a guest in the Taj Hotel’s Elephanta Suite, is a far more complex individual in that he is both self-serving and self-aware. But when he renounces the world and goes to the dogs, as it were, we catch ourselves muttering, “Good riddance!”
Alice, on the other hand, engages our interest, because she is the only white protagonist here who proves to be sensitive and responsive to the Indian experience. But can Theroux resist queering her pitch and ruining her story? Not with his unfailing instinct for the wrong move. The only creation to escape his clumsy handling is the elephant Alice befriends, an endearing beast, even when it runs amok.
Would that Theroux had emulated his one-time mentor, Sir Vidia, who knew instinctively what it took to transform his exasperation over a country and its residents into riveting literature: sharp insights, a pinch of subtlety, a smidgeon of humour, a generous helping of empathy, trenchant prose and considerably more focus and depth than The Elephanta Suite reveals.