Theroux's seekers wander amid cacophony, tension of Mumbai

Review Novellas

September 30, 2007|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,[Special to The Sun]

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."

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