The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
I have always read about Paul Theroux as a travel writer in newspapers and magazines, and had always wanted to read him. This is his first book that I read, and I definitely want to read more of him.This book is a compilation of three stories, stories of Americans coming to India with some pre conceived notions of what India is all about and what they want from their travels in this country. But what they discover and loose in the process is what the stories are all about. The protagonists are different people at the beginning and the end of the stories. What India does to each of them is different, what they came for is different, what they lost is also different, but they all fell in love with the unheard India that they discovered, they thought they have found what they had been looking for all their lives, the ultimate nirvana, but only to discover they have been duped, cheated, violated and that too in a very planned way.
The stories have the most common backgrounds that westerners usually come to India for, a high end wellness spa somewhere in the foothills of Himalayas, Bombay for business and an Ashram in the south India for discovering the inner peace. I have personally met lot of such travelers and I can completely relate to the stories told, though being a novel, there is a bit more drama than in real life or may be not. The spiritual image that the people carry of the country, the assumed piousness in poverty, the often conveyed futility of material world, all these influence the way travelers connect and interact with the countries like India and its only going through some experiences that they come to see the country and realize the realities of the world around them. Some of them may see this as a process of evolution, and the price they paid as the price for experience, while others just go back a bit more bitter, may be a bit wiser too.
Ashrams being commercial organizations run on charity from the western world and from the rich in India, under the disguise of ‘doing good’ for the so called downtrodden. I am sure if someone was to pick any ashram, there would be enough similar stories to be written, stories of people who ran away from their lives and found a shelter and many friends with similar stories. People who are not afraid to come together to commit crimes and cheat, and use the ashram’s brand name to collect money.
Author has a great gift of describing the places in such a way that you can actually feel and smell the place. You will feel the dirt and smell of streets, of small towns, the stuffiness of ashrams, the calm of open spaces, the naiveness of travelers, the helplessness of their hosts and the whole scene just happens in front of your eyes. There are no clichés usually found in travel writing and no coloring the places and the people, be it black or white or even grey. He has used mythological symbols monkeys and elephants in all the three stories, providing the mysticism to the stories which would otherwise sounded a bit bland. He depicts India as it exists today, nothing to do with its past and future. He presents personalities that are contrasting and yet converging.
This book is not something that would leave you happy, but it may show you some facets of the world you live in that you may not have known or noticed.