01 January 2008

Incredible India? You Bet Your Skinny Ass


The Elephanta Suite
By Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin
Pages 287
£4.50


“The filth and repulsiveness of the assembly were beyond all description, and I shuddered to think what their life in the badgered holes must be.”
~ The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes, by Rudyard Kipling
[A chilling tale about an Englishman who becomes a prisoner-slave of the crow-eating Gunga Dass and his rabble of un-dead cataleptics, after falling into a crater along the Sutlej.]

Paul Theroux is back. As mean, pugnacious, blunt, and acute as ever. The travel and literary fiction writer who loves documenting unpleasantness and awkwardness returns to India, with which he had struck a wonderful chemistry in his famous The Great Railway Bazaar. In The Elephanta Suite, his patently brash and politically incorrect re-imagining of Kipling’s India, Theroux examines what happens in those “badgered holes” of The Strange Ride.

The Empire was Kipling’s muse; Theroux’s is globalisation. This collection of three tenuously interconnected stories, set in the contemporary India of buzzing call centres, Garden of Eden-ish luxury spas, and big business deals struck in gleaming board rooms, brings Indians and Americans face to face, as if to mock the fears of globalisation spurring a rampant cultural homogeneity around the world. Theroux is trying to test if and how far the changing commercial East-West equation has resulted in the long-awaited meeting of the two cultures.

And strangely, the cultural equation is unchanged because, as Theroux reveals, Indians have not changed much. India is still a land of devious, “pestering and puritanical” people, “hating each other much more than they [hate] foreigners”. “They’re either at my throat or at my feet,” one of the American characters emails to a colleague back in New York. That’s a good one-line paraphrasing of Kipling’s works too.

If the two parallels seem to be converging, it is because the West has at last relented to roll out its yoga mats, feed peanuts to an Indian elephant, get Ayurvedic massages, outsource manufacturing of gardening tools to India, and mock at Indian English and the famous Indian gaucherie, not from the safe confines of Californian neighbourhoods, New Jersey suburban homes or sterile New York offices, but in the shitty, noxious, pestilentially populous lanes of India.

In the glorious age of easy travel and the anachronistic 'always enticing but never ever anything but hype' hype about the Incredible India that Americans resist so resolutely, Americans still allow themselves to be had once they are in India’s dreaded thrall. For having at last condescended to visit India and then finding the courage to step out of their hotel rooms, the compensation is the joy of exchanging thirty-nine rupees for a dollar, and yielding to the “land of yes” in an “unexamined” orgy of guilt-free sex with very willing natives.

In ‘Monkey Hill’, a rich businessman and his wife, curious about the real India beyond the sanitised, prettified world of their Ananda-In-The-Himalayas-type Ayurvedic spa, encounter the grimness of real India and their own dark desires. Initially thrown off by both, their keen curiosity soon sends them rushing in, trying to grasp India in a passionate, masochistic embrace, with tragic consequences.

Theroux’s characters, liberatingly outspoken, engage rather than withdraw: All of them shun the charms of the plush Elephanta Suite of the title, fearing it would shut them out of real India. And once they give themselves to India, they are like Hemingway or James Baldwin living in Paris and loving it.

In ‘The Elephanta Suite’ the story of the book’s title, Dwight Huntsinger, a New York lawyer, our-man-in-India for an outsourcing firm, sends his Indian contact and subordinate to America to take his place in a seminar. To Dwight's surprise, the man who had on their first meeting smiled and said, “I am at your service, sir”, returns home, touched by America, overbearing and familiar. “Old Shah had been -- not Americanised, but enlarged, made self-aware,” Dwight observes, but still continues to rely on him with disastrous results.

This newfound confidence of Indians, thanks to their newfound wealth, owes much to America’s large appetite and persistent nose for good deals, and this theme is explored with vehemence through the three stories. America uplifts Indians and then invariably regrets it.

The theme is taken up by ‘The Elephant God’, in which Alice, a young American woman, who earns her keep in Sai Baba’s Whitefield Ashram in Bangalore by working as a part-time accent trainer in a call centre, transforms an “awkward, slightly comic, oblique and old-fashioned jobseeker she’d met on the train” in a matter of a few months, into a confident, friendlier, funnier, more direct, “importuning brute.” Like Dwight, Alice too becomes the victim of the Frankenstein she'd created.

This Kiplingesque theme of repulsion-attraction finds its clearest articulation in ‘The Elepahanta Suite.’ Dwight, who initially regards going to India as an act of self-destruction, later hates the “dumb arrogance of mere bigotry” of his compatriots, who can’t stand India. “[They] would be terrified and angry, hating the place and the people ... like India’s victim,” he frets.

Discarding his own fears, Dwight “finds his level” in the hovel and arms of a young prostitute. Having turned from a fearful materialist to a pliant sensualist, Dwight soon learns, and apparently forgets, about “the Indian surprise. India attracted you, fooled you, subverted you, then if it did not succeed in destroying you with the unexpected, it left you so changed as to be unrecognizable.” And unrecognisable Dwight becomes in the end, and a victim of India.

This is Theroux in his element. Indians or Americans who pick up a copy will find themselves rolling on the ground as he wields his excoriating whip maliciously, accurately. And with every lash they will hear themselves scream, ‘More, Theroux, more!’ That’s because although he gets the Indian geography wrong, and he gets the facts wrong, and the endings are as preposterous as Kipling’s, Theroux always gets his people right.

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