The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

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The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Three interconnected tales show us the spiritual, sexual and fiscal conflicts that emerge when American values are tested in modern India.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN: 978-0241143667

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Not to be mistaken for one of his dozen or so travel books, The Elephanta Suite is in fact the 29th work of fiction by Paul Theroux in the past 40 years. As its title hints, it is a suite of three interlinked novellas. The main link is their location: India. The literal suite is also part of a Mumbai hotel briefly occupied by people in each story, which also share some minor and major characters.

The first story is about a wealthy middle-aged American couple enjoying an open-ended stay at a secluded health resort. Only when they seek to interact with the 'real' India beyond its fences is their idyll shattered.

The second part of the book features another wealthy American, this time a lawyer helping US firms to outsource their manufacturing to the subcontinent. His journey starts as a carnal adventure but takes an unexpected and spiritual turn.

The final novella concerns a young woman from the States, backpacking through India after graduating from college. The one character who is on a geographical as well as a spiritual journey, she is brought harshly into contact with physical reality, and into an unusual relationship with a captive elephant.

Drawing on his own travels in India, Theroux's brisk prose effectively conveys the surface realities of this huge and diverse nation. But the many Indias he really wants to explore are those not obvious to the casual tourist. Although all the stories are told from the point of view of the American interlopers, their relationships with the Indians give us access to society at all levels - from the richest socialite to the humblest mahout.

This means that money is an important uniting theme in the book. The value of rupees is constantly discussed. Everything, from the biggest outsourcing deal in a plush boardroom, to a sexual encounter in a grubby flat, has a cash value. But carnal exchange is the real driving force of all three stories. Sex, and the many deceptions and betrayals it entails, whether starkly described, or implied, proves the making or undoing of nearly everyone in The Elephanta Suite.

While sex and money are the direct means by which the characters interact with the real India, the truths they go on to discover are more complex and alien. As Audie, the rich businessman of the first story, muses: I am what I appear to be, and the Indian never is.

If such simplistic distinctions appear clichéd at first (American equals brash and superficial; Indian equals inscrutable, complex and spiritual), Theroux generally avoids populating his tales with stereotypical puppets. He makes people believably flawed. Like most of us, I suspect, their thoughts can veer from the crass to the profound. Theroux gives us both, often to comic effect.

While not suggesting the type of relativism which would make Dumbo the equal of Ganesh, the protagonists also embody the strengths respective cultures in ways that confound expectations. The white characters are shown to be capable of insight and generosity; some of the Indians are greedy, venal and corrupt. Americans are drawn to the spiritual just as Indians are seen to embrace materialism.

The stories, with their brevity, colours, flavours and smells, their seething desires and sudden violence, maintain our interest enough to convey the complexities that lay beneath. As a writer known best for his travels, Theroux maybe doesn't surprise us that much about the American-Indian nexus, or about the two nations themselves. But he is perceptive enough about the lies we tell ourselves, and the truths we accidentally discover, to make this book as rewarding and revealing, multifaceted and mysterious as India itself.

For another angle on Indian cultural clashes of an earlier period, you could try Coronation Talkies by Susan Kurosawa. A book that takes a journalistic look at, among other things, the realities beneath India's economic boom, is Freedom Next Time by John Pilger. You might also appreciate The Village by Nikita Lalwani.

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