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 problem
of presenting a country that has traditionally been
represented by snake charmers and nebulous rituals
has forced many foreign writers to renegotiate India
in their fiction. Paul Theroux manages this with
some success in his latest collection of three
inter-related short stories.
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 clichéd, 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.
The real theme of Theroux's work is the conflict between the stylish American and the earthy grimness of the experience called India. Like the Boston marketing executive in The Gateway of India or the Blundens in Monkey Hill, the innocuous foreigner in Theroux's tales is forced by the pull of the country to become someone else, a risk-taking dissolute creature of the moment. As one character who discovers the ineluctable truth about India puts it: if the country seemed puritanical, "it was because at the bottom of its puritanism was a repressed sensuality that was hungrier and nakeder and more voracious than anything he'd known." In India, one can lead a dissipated existence and at the same time, be grateful for an essentially humane space. Surrender is a repetitive stance with Theroux's characters; the tide of India churns them so violently that they willingly accept sweet death.
The most terrifying story of the collection is Alice's who comes to India to attend the Sathya Sai Baba ashram in Bangalore (see sidebar), but undergoes a transformative tragedy. What everyone in this collection comes to learn in the end is that India is not transitional, but permanent. It's not an idea, but an entity. Its scars and its beauty are brutal gifts to be partaken by the western traveler. It challenges all notions of the other that the selfsame traveler may have had. "This was what travel meant, another way of living your life and being free," says Alice early on in The Elephant God. Never mind that that freedom comes at a price.
This review was originally published in November 2007, and has been updated for the September 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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