The Elephanta Suite
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin / 256 pages/ $25
Whether one knows Paul Theroux as a novelist or a travel writer, place is the signal element in all his work. Place is both character and plot and inextricable from both, but place always takes on an obsessive, all-consuming quality in Theroux's books.
In his latest, The Elephanta Suite, India is the place, specifically Mumbai and environs. This collection of three very loosely intersecting novellas virtually thrums with the cacophony of that most populous, volatile, commercially striving and poverty-ridden city.
Perhaps because Theroux writes predominantly about place, his characters tend to be seekers. In "Monkey Hill" a middle-aged American couple, Audie and Beth Blunden, married for three decades, look for adventure at Agni, a spa outside Mumbai, but they are drawn - inexorably and ultimately catastrophically - to the Monkey Hill, Hanuman Giri, at the foot of the Himalayas.
The Blundens aren't quite ugly Americans, although Audie certainly comes close and even his wife thinks that travel makes her "normally straightforward husband pretentious." What the Blundens are is adrift. They came to Agni for their health - it is both spa and a spiritual center - and there the couple are pampered: they are massaged and fed and groomed and catered to. Their original stay was for a week, but they cannot seem to leave. They renew their reservation week after week.
But what do the Blundens expect from their sojourn in India, other than such luxuriant and elitist relaxation? The couple are uniquely bored by the locals, hate how their own comments are ignored and interpret things told to them not as helpful or informative, only as pompous or pontificating.
Their journeys outside the compound of Agni are rife with risk and excitement - whether it is in viewing the apes that lounge about near dusk, appearing to watch the sunset or striking up conversation with strangers on the roadway. As comfortable and comforting as the secluded and safe world of Agni is, they want something more. Which leads them to explore the local village, Hanuman Nagar, and attempt to connect with the "other" India.
Beth Blunden thinks as they first venture into "the invisible place" that it is indeed terrifying to leave the safety of Agni. "She could feel the tension of the town in her body like a cramp; she could smell it and taste it. It was dreadful and disorderly, yet she was aroused by its truth. ... She was shocked and excited by it. It was India with the gilt scraped off, hungry India, the India of struggle, India at odds with itself. She had seen Indians at Agni, but they didn't live there. This was where Indians lived, in the smoke and flames of Hanuman Nagar."
The length of their stay and these trips outside their compound blur boundaries for the Blundens. They begin to believe that they are of India, rather than in India, that they have a special relationship to those who in reality think the couple are merely customers or consumers or, worst of all, prey. The consequences of this cultural misreading are extreme.
Extremes abound in "The Gateway of India," as well. Dwight Huntsinger is a 43-year-old recently divorced corporate attorney from Boston, sent to sanction deals in Mumbai. On his first trip he never leaves his hotel room - the Elephanta Suite - at the Taj Mahal Hotel. "The best suite in the best hotel" is still in India and Huntsinger suffers through his trip, hoping never to return, living on bananas and bottled water for the week.
His impressions of India are that it is demonic, its own circle of hell. "He had dreaded it, and it had exceeded even his fearful expectations - dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he'd ever been. 'Hideous' did not describe it; there were no words for it. It was like an experience of grief, leaving you mute and small."
But Huntsinger soon finds himself resigned to a second trip - forced on him by a senior colleague who refuses to return, noting "even Indians don't want to go to India." This time he comes prepared, with tins of tuna fish and plastic forks and other things untainted by India that he can eat.
His hotel window overlooks the Gateway of India with its three portals and one evening he ventures out to walk along the quay. There he is accosted by an older woman who appears not to want anything, but is actually pimping a young girl. Inexorably, Huntsinger is drawn to follow her, down "sudden, reeking lanes" and when he arrives with her and the young girl and her younger siblings, he realizes he has taken a life turn that will be irrevocable.
"Dwight folded his arms, sat back on his chair and thought: I can leave now, and that will be the end. I will be the same man. Or I can stay, and follow the old woman's suggestions, and see it through, and something will happen that can't be undone."
Which is exactly what happens to Huntsinger. Except it is he who is undone by first this experience, and then by how he is consumed by India.
In "The Elephant God," Alice, a student from Brown traveling with her friend Stella, is finding out about the world in a plethora of ways. Stella is pretty, Alice is plain. This counterpoint colors all their interactions and explains a great deal to Alice about what "pretty" allows and how the egotism that comes with "pretty"can subvert almost everything else. "Pretty girls could be peculiarly reckless and were seldom harmed or blamed because they were pretty."
Alice gets a job teaching up-and-coming Indians how to speak English with as Americanized an accent as possible. Her achievement leads to her being stalked by one of her students and assaulted. Recovering from her trauma she travels to Bangalore, to find both a guru, the Swami, and a connection to the elephant god, Ganesh, who removes obstacles, from whom she hopes to find peace.
The Elephanta Suite is a remarkable book. The first piece doesn't quite measure up to the other two, but as a whole, the book reads like Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham and essays of Orwell. It's classic, but dark. It's smart and intricate and complex and difficult to read because the characters are at once loathsome and poignantly vulnerable and empathetic. It's haunting, creepy, unsettling.
Theroux's Indian tales are about rupture - emotional, spiritual, economic, cultural. India is, as Theroux paints it and as anyone who actually knows it is well-aware, a place of continual rupture: The teeming of the billion-plus people is compounded by the fact that several hundred languages are spoken by Indians, more than 50 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, there is constant political upheaval, the life expectancy of the average Indian hovers at 60 - nearly 20 years lower than their Western counterparts - there is almost no sanitation and potable water for only a third of the populace, there are urine and feces everywhere.
India may indeed be the hell Huntsinger first divines it to be, or it may be the place of spiritual rebirth that he and Alice find there.
The reality of India's dangers are subliminal in The Elephanta Suite, but they are also fundamental to the characters' experiences. India is a country in tumult and each of Theroux's characters is in a state of tumult as well. These searchers aren't aware that they are searching until, in the case of the Blundens, it's too late, and in the case of Huntsinger and Alice, they are startled by their own realization into surprising actions.
Theroux presents India both as it appears to Westerners and as Indians perceive it - a keenly observed dichotomy from a seasoned world-traveler. A solid, masterful, deeply moving book that is both enthralling and disturbing in equal measure, the prose is as lush and vibrant as the place it describes. The Elephanta Suite hovers near extraordinary, a must for Theroux fans and anyone else captivated by India and yearning to see beyond the stereotypes or Bollywood fantasies.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.