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A realm of passion and paradox

Paul Theroux's 'The Elephanta Suite,' which comprises three novellas, examines spiritual and physical desire. Paul Theroux's "The Elephanta Suite," which comprises three novellas, examines spiritual and physical desire. (WILLIAM FURNISS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Thrity Umrigar
November 25, 2007

The Elephanta Suite
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin, 274 pp., $25

India is a country that arouses deep emotions in visitors - they are either repelled by its sights and smells or bowled over by its otherworldliness and colorfulness. Perhaps it takes a novelist to synthesize those two emotions and understand India in its full complexity and contrariness.

Paul Theroux's "The Elephanta Suite," a collection of three novellas, is that rare thing, a book that is world-weary, even pessimistic, but never dyspeptic. The pessimism comes from the many misperceptions and cultural misunderstandings that afflict the book's American and Indian characters. All three novellas feature Americans in India who lose their innocence in one way or another. Theroux seems to indicate that the interactions between the Easterners and the Westerners are inherently exploitative, the former trying to get money from the wealthy American tourists, and the latter looking to the impoverished locals for spiritual enlightenment. Neither side seems quite able to give the other what it is looking for.

And yet, despite their subject matter, the novellas share a sharp, trenchant humor. Honed from his years as a travel writer, Theroux possesses an ear for the quaintness of Indian English and an eye for the kind of closely observed detail that instantly captures a moment.

The first novella, "Monkey Hill," tells the story of Audie and Beth Blunden, an affluent American couple who have checked into a luxury spa and resort for a spiritual retreat, one of those places whose success depends on Westerners who see India not so much as a real country, but as an exotic, mythical land.

Audie and Beth mistake the hotel staff's courteous professionalism for a kind of personal caring, and eventually both husband and wife plunge into sexual entanglements with people they barely understand and who barely understand them. Theroux does a marvelous job in showing us the Blundens' humiliation as both of them realize they've been had.

An ongoing joke is their constant refrain of how the Indians they meet don't listen. But the irony is that it's Audie and Beth who are not picking up on cues. This lack of attention comes back to haunt them when the town near their resort, whose existence they are largely sheltered from, explodes in a riot. The very insularity of the resort - "They woke to a brilliant sunrise and felt there were no days like this anywhere but on this hilltop in India. The rest of India and the stormy world were elsewhere" - becomes a trap.

If Audie and Beth are more easily recognized as ugly Americans, Dwight Huntsinger, the hero of the second novella, "The Gateway of India," is not. A lawyer and businessman, Dwight starts his second visit to Bombay with all the usual precautions, vowing not to touch the local food and carrying with him cans of tuna, crackers, and bottles of Gatorade. But a meeting with a grandmotherly woman, who turns out to be a pimp, sets him off on a dissolute journey of sexual exploration. Theroux describes Dwight's transition from distant businessman to debauched participant in a nonjudgmental way. Despite the obvious exploitation involved in the transactions between Dwight and the teenage prostitutes he sleeps with, the encounters humanize Dwight. They also change his relationship with India, as he goes "native," in dress, diet, and, perhaps most important, attitude. Inevitably, this puts a distance between him and his life in America: "Yet his partners would never have done what he was doing - eating among Indian businessmen, scooping dhal with the torn-off ear of a flaky poori, spooning yogurt, nibbling the slippery bindi. . . . India no longer scared him - rather the opposite; it aroused him, made him feel engaged with the world, most of all made him feel powerful."

Dwight's experience is a constant refrain in this book - the American and Indian characters need each other, the Americans seeking sexual and spiritual fulfillment (which they get in varying degrees) and the Indians economic advancement. Thus, "The Gateway of India" ends with roles neatly reversed: Shah, the Indian go-between Dwight has hired, is transformed by a short trip to America and returns to India confident and brash, and increasingly able to run the show without Dwight. The latter, in the meantime, having exhausted his sexual dissipation, adopts the life of an ascetic.

The theme of sexual aggression is fully realized in the third novella, "The Elephant God." This time, the predator is Indian and the victim is Alice, a plain American woman who lives in an ashram run by a distant swami. To support herself, she takes a job at a local call center, training young Indians to answer the phone in American accents. Her most diligent student is Amitabh, who also becomes her stalker.

Theroux is excellent in revealing a country in transition and in implying a link between language and the conception of self: "All of them were altered by speaking American English, given new personalities. . . . India clung to the past, and so for all the new buildings and new money, nothing changed very much. . . . Yet saying 'We can ramp up a solution,' Amitabh underwent a personality change."

The bleak message of all three novellas is clear: Importing the American way of life to other cultures is fraught with peril and misunderstandings.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of "If Today Be Sweet" and "The Space Between Us." She lives in Cleveland.

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