book review: the elephanta suite

Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite is a collection of novellas about Americans interacting with India. They come off badly in each one. In one, there’s a couple who’re at a resort practically hiding from “the real India.” They’re oblivious to such a degree that they didn’t realize there was a town near the resort where they’re being pampered, until their sexual peccadilloes get them all caught up in it. Another story is about an American businessman who gets caught up in debauchery in Bombay. He pays for sex with a young girl and then takes a different underage girl as his slum mistress. All while accumulating kudos from all his colleagues back in Boston who didn’t have the guts to go to India. The third story is about a female university student who’s off backpacking. She goes to an ashram in Bangalore and gets a job doing accent training for Home Depot call centres. And then she gets raped.

So yes, none of the stories are really happy. And all of them see people searching for some kind of Indian liberation and getting fucked over by sex. The third one was my favourite, because of the injustice of the whole thing (the girl gets blamed for being raped), and how she responds.

It was interesting because Theroux mentions writing these stories in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, so I could see how he was pulling characters and settings from the trains he’d ridden. His description of how Indian men tend to be a little pedantic and addicted to explanation struck a chord with me. These characters were definitely people I’d seen in my travels.

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