Thursday, September 20, 2007

Passages To India

This appeared in the September 21 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux remarked that though he went in search of trains, he found passengers. In his latest, The Elephanta Suite – three interlinked novellas based in India – we find passengers dealing with the consequences of arriving in a country quite unlike the one they have left behind.

These are Americans who have come to India for various reasons. In ‘Monkey Hill’, Audie and Beth try to find serenity in a spa near Rishikesh but are drawn into illicit liaisons; in ‘The Gateway of India’, Dwight, a corporate lawyer tying up outsourcing contracts in Mumbai, finds himself paying for lascivious relationships with salon workers; and in ‘The Elephant God’, Alice, a backpacker, seeks solace at the Sai Baba ashram near Bangalore, only to become the target of undesirable attention from an employee at a BPO centre where she teaches American diction.

Sex, spirituality and unexpected events, then, are the common threads here – E.M. Forster alert! -- with more than an undercurrent of seediness. Throughout, there is a sense of menace, of things falling apart, as the unwary visitors find that they have created circumstances that will lead to unsavoury results.

Theroux is very good at foreshadowing events, in creating atmosphere and in intimating hints of foreboding. The simians in ‘Monkey Hill’ are a palpable menace, as is the town’s restlessness after a mosque’s destruction. Rats scurry in the by-lanes behind the Taj hotel in ‘The Gateway of India’ and a musth-stricken pachyderm has to be tethered in ‘The Elephant God’. The contrast between cloistered, peaceful spaces and the unsavoury multitudes outside is repeatedly drawn.

In addition, there is a density of detail, be it when it comes to crowded streets, train and bus journeys, life in an ashram or living in a Mumbai hotel. Trains, suites, spas, ashrams: clearly, Theroux’s experience of India seems to be that of a short sojourner and as such, the things that bedevil his characters are the things that travellers initially recoil from: the inquisitive, teeming masses, the squalor of the surroundings and the neediness of the general public. This, as the author warns, is “India with the gilt scraped off, hungry India, the India of struggle, India at odds with itself”.

It’s quite gratuitous, then, for him to take swipes at Indians writing in English: “Where were the big fruitful families from these novels, where were the jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men? They all seemed concocted to her now…” And again: “The novels described a tidier India, full of ambitions, not the India of pleading beggars or weirdly comic salesmen, or people so pompous they were like parodies.” At such times, one can sense Theroux’s own thoughts overriding the consciousness of his characters.

The characters themselves are well-fleshed out if a bit too self-aware but, however compelling their predicaments, one can’t escape the feeling that they’re too firmly caught in the vice-like grip of plot. The ending, for instance, of the first novella comes across as forced and that of the third, too neat.

Most of the Indians who feature aren’t very likeable. They have hidden agendas (such as Mr Shah, Dwight’s Indian counterpart), are avaricious (such as the snobbish socialite whom Dwight encounters), are hypocritical (such as Prithi and Priyanka, Alice’s ashram colleagues) or are openly lecherous (such as Amitabh, Alice’s pursuer). Along the way, Theroux also pokes fun at so-called Indian ways of speech: “deek” for “teak” and “eshrine” for “shrine”, for example, and, of course, “What is your good name?”

Though Theroux warns against making generalisations about the country, he can’t resist slipping in a few pronouncements himself. “India was the proof that you could not do anything here that hadn’t been done before,” goes one, and later: “From a distance, India was splendour; up close, misery”. This is his India: it’s not everyone’s. In Cambridge economist Joan Robinson’s words, “Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”.

Don’t expect the refined interactions of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Merchant-Ivory scripts or the genteel nuances of her own novels and short stories in these passages to India. Theroux’s India is bestial and hostile, and as such, The Elephanta Suite, despite its craft, is too jaundiced and circumscribed to be palatable.

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