Summary and book reviews of The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

The Elephanta Suite

Three Novellas

By Paul Theroux

The Elephanta Suite
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2007,
    274 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2008,
    288 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Vikram Johri

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Book Summary

This startling, far-reaching book captures the tumult, ambition, hardship, and serenity that mark today’s India. Theroux’s Westerners risk venturing far beyond the subcontinent’s well-worn paths to discover woe or truth or peace. A middle-aged couple on vacation veers heedlessly from idyll to chaos. A buttoned-up Boston lawyer finds succor in Mumbai’s reeking slums. And a young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore.

We also meet Indian characters as singular as they are reflective of the country’s subtle ironies: an executive who yearns to become a holy beggar, an earnest young striver whose personality is rewired by acquiring an American accent, a miracle-working guru, and others.

As ever, Theroux’s portraits of people and places explode stereotypes to exhilarating effect. The Elephanta Suite urges us toward a fresh, compelling, and often inspiring notion of what India is, and what it can do to those who try to lose--or find--themselves there.

Monkey Hill
1

They were round-shouldered and droopy-headed like mourners, the shadowy child-sized creatures, squatting by the side of the sloping road. All facing the same way, too, as though silently venerating the muted dirty sunset beyond the holy city. Motionless at the edge of the ravine, they were miles from the city and the wide flat river that snaked into the glow, the sun going gray, smoldering in a towering heap of dust like a cloudbank. The lamps below had already come on, and in the darkness the far-off city lay like a velvety textile humped in places and picked out in squirts of gold. What were they looking at? The light dimmed, went colder, and the creatures stirred.

“They’re almost human,” Audie Blunden said, and looked closer and saw their matted fur.

With a bark like a bad cough, the biggest monkey raised his curled tail, lowered his arms, and thrust forward on his knuckles. The others, skittering on smaller limbs, followed ...

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Reviews

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Paul Theroux understands India intimately, as is clear from his various books based on the country, such as By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent (1984); however, he does tend to present a rather well-worn image of the world's largest democracy which, today, is on the cusp of a major economic revolution ... The stock dialogues and the pious homilies are all here. As a character in one story surmises a tragic death from another story, "He has left the body," in a typical, if somewhat clich├ęd, take on how Indians address death, but Theroux also pays lip service to the new India, the gleaming interiors of Bangalore call centers and the ritzy Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, whose Elephanta Suite is a recurring theme in the stories--a witness to acquisitions and losses.   (Reviewed by Vikram Johri).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post - Michael Dirda

The thought-provoking novellas of The Elephanta Suite are ... beautifully paced, by turns moving, sexy and disturbing. You could finish one in an evening, which means that at least three evenings this fall would be very well spent.

Time - Pico Iyer

It is, in short, the very darkness, the possibility of degradation, that makes his people (and perhaps their creator) feel alive. Most modern visitors are content to portray the contemporary subcontinent as a bright and shining Silicon Valley East. Many Indian novelists sit within the cozy traditions laid down by Charles Dickens and even Jane Austen. Theroux is the rare writer to see that the fascination, the power of India today, lies in the commute between the two.

Publishers Weekly

These unsettling tales about American travelers at odds with India's complexities are linked through passing references, but what they share most is a transformative menace that takes the place of spiritual succor.

Kirkus Reviews

Three brilliant, loosely concatenated stories, all set in India and all about spiritual quests...whether they realize it or not, Theroux's characters are all seekers, and all of them wind up on paths much different from those they originally imagined.

The Guardian - Maya Jaggi

Paul Theroux, objecting to Americans' ineligibility for the Booker prize, once said: "The year that really annoyed me was when that Polish woman, who happened to have been married to a Sikh and lived in India, won it." The "Polish woman" was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Briton born in Germany to Jewish parents (one of whom was Polish) who fled to England in 1939. Her husband, the architect Cyrus Jhabvala, is Parsi not Sikh. Theroux's approach to India in his latest book is no less cavalier .... After decades of polyphonic fiction from and about the subcontinent, it is strange to read such a complacently one-sided view, in which the locals are objects of lust, curiosity or ridicule but their inner lives remain closed.

Independent on Sunday - Christian House

If you concentrate on such linguistic scrutiny and ignore the grim bedroom antics, there's much to enjoy in this book. Just don't expect the Indian tourist board to agree.

Daily Telegraph - Ed King

Theroux's great talent is for evoking 'elsewhere' with all its alluring exoticness and latent dangers. The India he so vividly conjures in The Elephanta Suite is one of transition, or, as one character says, 'an India at odds with itself'. Theroux may be revisiting well-trodden terrain, but he hasn't lost any of his insight or power to enthral.

The Telegraph - Tom Payne

The Elephanta Suite is an exquisite triptych in which figures on each panel change the way we see the rest of the composition; and the whole thing, for all its subtlety, is done in strong colours. Theroux treats all of his characters with an unsparing frankness, whether Indian or American. But the result is that neither side wins. Individuals emerge transformed from these encounters, always in ways for which they could never have bargained. Ultimately, they leave their old selves behind.

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  • The first novella in this collection, "Monkey Hill", has a definitive resonance with Theroux's own life. During his time in Uganda, where he was a visiting scholar at the Makerere University in Kampala, a violent mob attacked the car his pregnant wife was traveling in. The incident was enough to put Theroux off Africa; he and his family left the continent, where he had spent much of the 1960s, for Singapore shortly after his son was born. He barely ...

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