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The Orient Updated

Americans are seduced by India in spite of themselves. What that leads to is never good

Paul Theroux
290 pp; Rs 495

Paul Theroux traversed the length and breadth of the subcontinent in the 1970s. His funny, unsparing observations held a mirror up to us and the book, The Great Railway Bazaar, is an acknowledged classic. Since then, the engagement between his native country, the US, and India has grown considerably. IT powerhouse and outsourcing haven have replaced snake charmer and Mahesh Yogi in the American mind — or so we are given to believe. So what does Theroux make of this new version of India?

The protagonists in each of the three stories which constitute The Elephanta Suite are all Americans. The setting is Indian, as are most of the characters. “21st century India” is very much present in each story. In The Monkey Hill, the Blundens — husband-wife, middle-aged and very rich — are cocooned in a luxury resort. What lies beyond — the “real” India — is inscrutable, and unsettling to them in a vaguely sinister way. But they both can’t leave well enough alone — allowing themselves to be lured in by the scent of youth and sex.

The Gateway of India is about the adventures of Dwight, a recently divorced lawyer from Boston, who has no desire to step out of his hotel suite (of the book’s title) and the boardroom where he is striking lucrative outsourcing deals. And yet, his paranoid abhorrence of all things Indian is breached by, what else, but the prospect of sex with a 16-year-old girl. This leads to a headlong plunge into the “real” India, which is rank, fetid, poor, hungry and greedy, and largely because of it all, endlessly fascinating in a grim, hallucinatory kind of way. Its dire, desperate needs offer many opportunities, but at a price — a very steep price, according to Theroux. For all the realistic details about today’s Mumbai, the tame, improbable ending seems more out of an Oriental fantasy written a hundred years ago.

Theroux likes to say that India transforms his Americans but what his stories describe is more like entrapment. These innocents abroad are all finally devoured by the mysterious, often lurid, India, even as they struggle to make sense of it. Like the sensitive, good, virginal (literally) backpacker Alice in The Elephant God who is “transformed” in way that leaves her permanently damaged.

Theroux’s stories often take us to unfamiliar streets, nooks and crannies and because his stories have the assured touch of a master craftsman, we eagerly hop on for the ride. But the storyline flags and, in the end, the robust, lingering taste in our mouth feels half real and half unreal.

Sep 22, 2007

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