Old E-school

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THE ELEPHANTA SUITE by Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 274 pages.4074423bbe5f28538c5d9971ee307112-3

For the numerous times that Paul Theroux condescendingly has one of his Indian characters mouth an “e” in front of an English word beginning with an “s,” he may as well have titled his book The Elephanta Esuite. In the first novella, “shrine” becomes “eshrine,” and in the second, “states” becomes “estates.” But by the third and final novella, “the obliqueness of Indian English, with its goofy charm that created distance, was a thing of the past.”

Theroux, himself, is a bit of a relic. His crisp and efficiently descriptive prose recalls a time when substance did not take a back seat to style. The Elephanta Suite has magnificent passages that take one’s breath away; the metaphors and similes are a powerful reminder of how a talented writer uses all the senses to make a place come alive: “India was not a country but a creature, like a monstrous body crawling with smaller creatures, pestilential with people—a big horrific being, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous.”

But Theroux is also an ancient in a less flattering sense: his sympathies lie with troubled travelers visiting India rather than with those inhabiting the nation. Although his observations of Mumbai, Bangalore, and an Ayodhya-like town are exquisitely detailed, he keeps a master’s safe distance from the servile Indian characters populating these locations. His lens is focused on American visitors: a wealthy couple languorously languishing in an Ayurvedic massage-therapy spa, a lawyer losing himself as he wins outsourcing deals for clients, and a recent Ivy League graduate teaching American English to call center employees. The Indians are dangerously in the background—inscrutable natives with age-old feuds, modern only in their aspirations.

As suggested by the title of the second novella, this book is a “Gateway to India.” The country becomes a “monumental souvenir” observed telescopically from a five-star suite in the Taj Hotel. Theroux writes that “you didn’t know someone until you were living under the same roof … rubbing against the other person, and being rubbed.” As an old-school sensualist, Theroux rubs away to the point of soreness; he rarely caresses, and thus makes it difficult for the reader to care for his characters or the places they visit.

After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at [email protected]

 

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