The Elephanta Suite consists of three novellas: “Monkey Hill.” “The Gateway of India,” and “The Elephant God.” Each explores the effect of present-day India on American travelers; and conversely, the effect that these travelers have on India. In “Monkey Hill,” Audie and Beth Blunden, a well-to-do, self-satisfied couple in their mid-fifties, visit an Ayurvedic spa called Agni. Located on a remote hilltop, Agni seems utterly removed from the chaos of urban India – and equally, from the poverty of the countryside. But the seeming separateness of the Blunden’s situation turns out all too soon to be an illusion. And if the name “Blunden” seems perilously close to the word “blunder…,” well, let me just say that it’s probably not accidental and leave it at that.
In “The Gateway of India,” a divorced businessman, Dwight Huntsinger, comes to New Delhi to facilitate the outsourcing various products to be marketed by American concerns. At first, Dwight shares the aversion, one might even say revulsion, that his business associates feel toward India. Shortly after his arrival, he is strolling along the promenade at the Gateway of India, a monument located on the waterfront in South Mumbai, when he comes upon several children who appear to be under attack by a man wielding a heavy walking stick. Dwight comes to their rescue, and almost immediately, out of nowhere, the children’s “Auntie” appears and insists that he take tea with them. One of the children, Sumitra (a beautiful name, that), is actually in her teens. Dwight is drawn to her; she just happens to have access to an apartment where they can be alone together; the inevitable ensues. Dwight, changed forever, embarks on a downward spiral of debauchery (his word). Ironically, in the midst of this free fall, he comes to love India intensely. Where and how will it end? India itself provides the only possible answer. (Shah, an observant Jain, is Dwight’s Indian counterpart in his business dealings. I worried about his ultimate fate throughout my reading of “The Gateway of India.” It was impossible not to: Shah is a far more sympathetic character than Dwight, although the story of Dwight’s dark night of the soul is very compelling.)
Finally, we have “The Elephant God.” A young woman named Alice Durand is waiting at the train station in Bombay for her traveling companion, Stella; Bangalore was next up on their itinerary. Stella finally shows up, late as is her wont, only to inform Alice that she won’t be coming with her. She has, of course, met a young man with whom she wants to stay. (This is the repulsive Zack, who is introduced briefly in “The Gateway of India;” Audie Blunden’ s name likewise turns up at the beginning of that novella.) Alice decides to go ahead by herself, a decision that proves to be full of unexpected consequences. One of those consequences is Amitabh, a man with whom Alice strikes up a conversation on the train. Alice had been thinking out loud, and when she explains this to Amitabh, who is sitting across from her, he paraphrases it thus: “Thought in head becoming utterance.” His quaint mode of expressing himself evokes in Alice these musings: “Now ‘utterance’ was one of those words, like ‘miscreants,’ ‘audacious,’ ‘thrice,’ ‘ample,’ and ‘jocundity,’ that some Indians used in casual conversation and Indian writers used in sentences, in the same way that out the window the Indian farmers were using antique sharp-nosed hand plows pulled by yoked oxen and women carried water jars on their heads. India was a country of usable antiques.”
Alice and Stella had planned to go to an ashram in Bangalore, the Sai Baba Center. I liked Alice’s description of watching the Swami, a sweet and gentle man, perform his “parlor tricks;” she compares the experience to that of the first followers of Christ: “The devotees applauded, as though at a party trick, and Alice realized they were like the earliest Christians, whose heads were turned by Christ’s words and his marvels, not seeing him as a figure foretold by Scripture or a human sacrifice, the Lamb of God, but a handsome man with a new voice, a beautiful spirit, a reformer, a liberator, someone who was able, in the most memorable words, to make sense of the world.” When Alice realizes that she is supposed to contribute financially to the upkeep of the ashram, she gets a job training new employees at a nearby call center. Thus she finds herself shuttling back and forth between, in essence, the two Indias: one sacred and traditional, the other modern and secular. But she finds a way station in the middle ground: a stable where a single working elephant, though chained to a post, is nevertheless loved and well cared for by a kindly mahout. By inhabiting simultaneously these multiple manifestations of India, Alice has set up a dangerous tension; the eventual result is a violent crime, followed by an uncertain resolution. Uncertain, that is, until the decisive intervention of the Elephant God.
I loved this book. Theroux brings India, with all its contradictions, beauties, and dangers, to lush and vivid life. Through his storytelling magic, he shows that the clash of cultures is more than a cliche; rather, it can have the deepest, irrevocable effects on the soul as well as the body of the unwitting (albeit well-meaning) intruder.
Paul Theroux is a writer I have long admired. His is a prodigiously gifted teller of tales; this make him equally adept at writing fiction and non-fiction, much of which is concerned with travel to remote and often dangerous places. I remember being riveted, some years ago, by The Mosquito Coast, a novel that was made into an equally riveting (and curiously underrated) film starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix.
I also strongly recommend Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown. Theroux’s best known work is probably The Great Railway Bazaar, a travel narrative published in 1975. I have read recently that he is in the process of re-creating the memorable journey chronicled in that book. The update should make for great reading!
Addendum: The Elephanta Suite would be an excellent book club selection; among its many other virtues, it is eminently discussible.