The appeal of the Indian trail beaten by the spiritual tourists and yoga groupies defeats me. Reading Paul Theroux's latest foray into fiction, The Elephanta Suite, only added to my reservations. This trio of novellas paints India as a claustrophobic hell-hole swarming with morally reprehensible ex-pats and sinister, overbearing locals. If the book has put me off booking an Air India flight, it has also bolstered the author's reputation as the dirty old man of American letters.
The tales vary in subject matter but all possess a misanthropic edge. In "Monkey Hill", Audie and Beth Blunden struggle with their mid-life crises while holidaying in a rural luxury spa. They treat themselves to treatments and flirt with the younger, Indian members of staff. The couple's ignorance of each other's sexual deceptions, and those of the staff, is matched by their inability to foresee the impending danger from local Hindus and Muslims fighting over turf rights to a temple.
In "The Gateway of India", Dwight Hunsinger, a "visiting American, lawyer and moneyman", exhibits even less self-awareness as he plunders a country he sees as an "outsourcing heaven" by means that can vary from undercutting manufacturers to procuring fellatio from a beggar. Even in his most conflicted moments he sees these acts as linked by his investment in the new economy.
The final story, "The Elephant God", proves the most affecting. Its young protagonist, Alice, is caught between a cult-like ashram and a soul-destroying job teaching American vernacular to Indians at a US-owned call centre. Solace derives from a friendship with a domesticated elephant. When Alice is stalked by one of her students, the story plays out like A Passage to India reworked by Ian McEwan.
Like McEwan, Theroux is a keen observer of decay. Dwight relishes the "reeking lanes" where he trawls for trade and Audie bears witness to his own deterioration ("the jug ears, the thinning hair. He was no more than his breath"). There is an equally bleak view of India. Characters discover it to be full of inexplicable motives and desires. "India attracted you, fooled you, subverted you, then, if it did not succeed in destroying you with the unexpected, it left you so changed as to be unrecognisable."
As in his previous novel, Blinding Light, Theroux's passages of erotica jar with the intelligence of the rest of his writing. Perhaps it's a metaphor for Western capitalism screwing over the East, but an author fast approaching 70 lasciviously detailing the services of Dwight's teenage Mumbai prostitute makes for queasy reading and it's not just the girl who's left with a bad taste in the mouth. Also, sometimes the sex simply defies the internal logic set out by the narrative.
Theroux's real strength lies in his examination of the rifts and bridges between languages. The "Indian habit of monologue" is juxtaposed by the American need to reference things to a fiscal touchstone. This is particularly effective during the scenes in Alice's language school: "Indians were much ruder speaking American. They sounded impatient." As a result the "obliqueness of Indian English, its goofy charm that created distance, was a thing of the past". If you concentrate on such linguistic scrutiny and ignore the grim bedroom antics, there's much to enjoy in this book. Just don't expect the Indian tourist board to agree.