IN THE THIRD the third of the three novellas that make up Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, the author tells of an important discovery made by Alice Durand, the protagonist of this tale:
You went away from home and moved among strangers. No one knew your history or who you were: you started afresh, a kind of rebirth. Being whoever you wished to be, whoever you claimed to be, was a liberation. She wrote the thought in her diary and ended. So now I know why people go away.
This is a sentiment that I’m sure sounds familiar to many Peace Corps Volunteers and is an important reason so many people find their time in the Peace Corps such a rewarding and memorable experience. It is a chance to get immersed in a new culture, almost taking on a new identity without giving up who you were before.
This observation also serves as the theme of these three novellas, held tenuously together by the idea that in each the Elephanta Suite at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai plays at least a passing role. Each story deals with Americans allowing themselves to be captured by the culture of India not always with happy results.
This book brings two virtues I want to see in any story it has a literary intelligence, and it is a page-turner. One of the reasons for this is that Theroux, as in the only other book of his I have read, My Secret History, combines human foibles with sexual desire, an irresistible pairing that makes you want to know what’s going to happen next.
In “Monkey Hill,” the first of the novellas, we meet an affluent American couple, Audie and Beth Blunden who, after a night at the Elephanta Suite, make their way to a luxury health spa in the foothills of the Himalayas. Down the hill from the spa is a town called Hunaman Nagar. The most important thing to know about this town is that there is a long conflict between Hindus and Muslims over a temple that was formerly a mosque, and the Muslims are none too happy about it.
The spa is not typically Indian, but the village is, and it is from this village that the employees come who work at the spa. Audie, who loves Beth but has a history of infidelity, allows himself nearly to be seduced by one of the female masseuses at the spa, but at the last minute walks away. Beth, who has never been unfaithful to Audie, finds herself tempted by a male masseuse and visits him in his room in the village. Suffice it to say that these two episodes lead to no good for the Blundens, who suddenly become personae non grata at the spa and who, through no fault of their own, become tragically embroiled in the clash between the Muslims and the Hindus.
The second of the novellas, “The Gateway of India,” is the one I like best. It is the story of an American lawyer, Dwight Huntsinger, who is slowly taken in by a culture that he at first wants nothing to do with. Dwight is in India to negotiate outsourcing contracts and initially spends his time either in the Elephanta Suite or making deals with Indian suppliers. He is assisted by an Indian lawyer, J.J. Shah.
One day Dwight emerges from the hotel, and strolls by the Gate of India, a huge monument built by the British at the ocean’s edge. There he is tricked by an old woman, who is really a pimp, into a compromising himself with a young Indian girl. One thing leads to another, and soon Dwight has a young Indian mistress whom he regularly visits in her room far from the luxury of the Taj Hotel. It’s his secret life, and it lures Dwight into a strange new cultural milieu.
Rather than return to the U.S. to give a seminar on setting up outsourcing deals, Dwight sends Shah, who, though a dedicated Jain, falls for the affluence, not to mention the superficiality of upper crust Boston and Harvard. In the meantime, Dwight finds the sex, though good, unfulfilling.
After Shah returns to India, he helps Dwight learn about Jain spirituality, and as we leave him at the story’s end, Dwight is settling into a small room in a kind of Jain monastery, brought there by Shah to have yet another new experience. Shah then returns to Mumbai, thinking he has tricked Dwight into allowing him to take the lead in the outsourcing deals.
The third of Theroux’s stories, “The Elephant God,” is the story of a bright, young, not-so-attractive American woman, Alice, who travels to India with an attractive friend, Stella. Stella quickly leaves Alice behind for the son of a rich American. Alone, Alice takes a train to Bangalore to stay at the ashram of a guru called Sai Baba. On the train she meets an obnoxious Indian man, Amitabh, who intends to get a job at a call center in Bangalore.
After some time at the ashram, Alice takes a job at the call center, where she trains phone workers on using American idioms and acquiring American accents. Amitabh turns out to be one of her students, and his training only enhances his obnoxious behavior. Amitabh eventually stalks Alice and rapes her, an act he asks her to simply forget about saying it’s part of life in India.
Alice then visits Sai Baba to get his opinion, and finds that his advice is not satisfactory. In the end, Amitabh pays a price for his actions, and Alice abandons Bangalore.
So we have from Theroux three stories of Americans getting caught up in the lives of Indians in ways that show the complexity of cultural differences keenly and unsentimentally observed.
Of course, Theroux is a master observer of such differences and of human frailties, and his powers are on full display here.
John Woods lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he has his own book packaging and production company, CWL Publishing Enterprises. He has developed more than 100 books for companies like McGraw-Hill, Adams Media, Alpha Books, Entrepreneur Press, and other publishers. He is also the father of Christopher Woods, who served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan from 1996 to 1998.