Sunday, October 21, 2007

Don't travel with preconceptions

The first novella in this collection set in India, "Monkey Hill," has a definite resonance with Paul Theroux's own life. During his time in Uganda, where he was a visiting scholar at Makerere University, a violent mob attacked his car. Theroux was traveling with his pregnant wife, and the incident was enough to put him off Africa. He left the continent for good.

Something similar happens to the Blundens in "Monkey Hill," but they are not so fortunate as the Therouxs. As a character in another story puts it (people keep visiting and leaving one story for another), "He has left the body" - a typical, if somewhat well-worn take on how Indians address death.

The Blundens, an American couple looking for enlightenment, textbook-style, arrive in Agni, a tiny resort nestled in the Himalayas. The resort is uncomfortably close to Hanuman Nagar, a hill town renowned for a famous shrine devoted to the Monkey God, Hanuman. Mixing politics with his adeptness at travel narrative, Theroux establishes a realistic backdrop of conflict over the status of the shrine, where a Muslim structure now stands. A close study of India's recent history provides rich saplings for religious confrontation in this nuanced tale. As Audie and Beth Blunden examine the fragility of their relationship, the knock on the door keeps getting louder and louder. Ultimately, as they fall in lust (and love?) with locals, the Blundens commit the error of romanticizing India, little aware of the consequences.

But that's jumping a bit. The real theme of Theroux's work is the conflict between the stylish, innocuous American and the earthy grimness of the subcontinent. In "The Gateway of India," a Boston marketing executive is driven by the pull of the country to demand extensions of his sojourns, which, in the eyes of his American coworkers, are trips to hell. Dwight Huntsinger, recently divorced and looking for sense in a senseless world, is uncontrollably drawn to a street woman, Indru, whom he meets at the Gateway in Mumbai, directly opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, whose Elephanta Suite is a recurring point of reference in the stories - a witness to acquisitions and losses.

Amid conventions and business meetings, Huntsinger discovers the ineluctable truth about India - that, if the country seemed puritanical, "it was because at the bottom of its puritanism was a repressed sensuality that was hungrier and nakeder and more voracious than anything he'd known." Indeed, the string of women Huntsinger beds brings him a satisfaction his prim American life never afforded him. In India, he could be dissolute - the reeking slums a compassionate complement to his weaknesses. Even as he receives pious homilies on life and renunciation from Shah, his Indian business partner, Huntsinger is grateful for this essentially humane space.

But his comfort is short-lived, as he realizes he is a pawn in the hands of the perpetrators of an Indian drama - he is merely a typical buffoon character, a firangi, given to grand ideas of self-flagellation. Surrender is a repetitive stance with Theroux's characters; the tide of India churns them so violently that they willingly accept sweet death. To Huntsinger, nothing is taboo anymore and he allows himself to be sucked into a dust of holiness.

The most terrifying story in the collection is Alice's in "The Elephant God." She comes to India to attend the Satya Sai Baba ashram in Bangalore, but gets molested by a coworker from the call center where she works. Alice looks to India for renewal, yet undergoes a transformative tragedy that leaves her shattered. But always, her filial connection with an elephant - the embodiment of her esteem for Ganesha, the vighna-harta (remover of obstacles), rejuvenates her: Initially a source of comfort, it becomes, by way of animal fury, the restorer of her honor.

What everyone in this collection comes to learn in the end is that India is not transitional, but permanent, not an idea, but an entity. Its scars and its beauty alike are brutal gifts to be partaken by the Western traveler. It challenges all notions of the other that the traveler may have had. "This was what travel meant, another way of living your life and being free," Alice says early on in "The Elephant God." Never mind that that freedom comes at a price.


From Philadelphia Inquirer


manayunker said...

nice review, vikram, i saw this in the philly paper. makes me want to get the book -- i will actually! take care....scott (travelhombre on gmail)

Eric Forbes said...

Thanks for the review, Vikram! I always enjoy reading Paul Theroux, especially his travel stories. He is very good with his fiction, too.

Vikram Johri said...

My pleasure, Scott and Eric!