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Paul Theroux's sleaze yatra

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

Alice boards a train in Bombay. She is en route to Bangalore with a friend who, at the last minute, ditches her for a new found amour, so Alice, alone in her coach with her co-passengers, spends her free time thinking how Indians have mummified an English where words like "utterance" and "miscreants", "thrice", "ample" and "jocundity" survive in daily usage. She meets a young man who adds to her vocabulary of Indian words with "ruminative", and Alice can't help thinking as she looks out of the train window that "it's so Merchant-Ivory".
This exoticisation of India is hardly unexpected, no foreign writer, less a travel writer, has remained free of the cliches, yet what is more annoying is that Alice's train somehow lands up in Gurgaon, the New Delhi suburb, before continuing on to Bangalore. Printer's devil? Subbing mistake? Or has the author of the hugely popular The Great Railway Bazaar lost his Bradshaw?
is no stranger to India, and his book on a railway journey through India in the seventies was a huge entertainer, though it did not quite escape the lampooning of Indians. But then, so did William Dalrymple in his City of Djinns, mocking at his taxi-driver's Indian-English before turning robustly supportive with his later Sadly, Theroux seems to be undergoing a petulant phase following a rather public spat with Sir Vidia Naipaul. Is the book a remainder of the nastiness that has probably simmered and remained? Is it an attempt to cash in on a market given that anything on India currently sells?
Why else would Theroux plot his three novellas on such a slim plot "" each of the story's protagonists stays at at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, and though he uses minor characters and references to them in each of the three stories in the book, their paths never quite cross each other.
Out of that feeble premise, Theroux populates a novel with Western people coming to India and finding that the country plumbs hidden depths that are more mysterious than the occidental mind can comprehend. So we have the Blundens who, at a spa in the Himalayas (quite clearly Ananda) discover that they may have drifted apart and into middle age, but that they are aroused by their masseurs into indiscretion. Yet, the tragic trajectory of their lives is written out not so much in their sleaze but in Indian religious bigotry. This is something David Davidar has attempted in The Solitude of Emperors with somewhat trepid results; Theroux doesn't even get there.
But his sordid yatra enters a new dimension with his next story, The Gateway of India, which has the American lawyer Dwight Huntsinger who had "feared and hated India", being seduced not so much by the country as the child prostitutes who prey on foreigners near the Gateway of India. By day, he is a corporate lawyer, by night "" a paedophile? Nevertheless, there is an amusing twist to the tale when Dwight's Indian counterpart goes off to the US and decides to stay on there, while Dwight, unable to tear himself away, finds himself happy to be retreating to an ashram, finding solace in a retreat from the world outside.
And then there's Alice Durand who lands herself a job as a teacher training the call centrewallahs in English and its various accents and nuances, but finds her friendly interaction with Amitabh turn into a nightmare date in which she is raped, then her complaints lead to her persecution by his relatives and friends, and finally, rebuffed by the inmates of the ashram she has chosen to live with, she escapes to take up temporary residence with the owners of an elephant she had met on her walks, and befriended. Amitabh tracks her there and, thanks to Alice's planning and the elephant's state of musth, she has her gory revenge.
If the stories attempt to reconcile a changing face of India, one that is striving and contemporary along with its mysticism and mysteriousness, Theroux "" who knows how to lay a plot "" muddles it up with the poor insight he has into India and Indians. This is eventually the superior white writing if not about the inferior then certainly the exotic brown, and in the end all you walk away with is the author's peevishness about Indians being curmudgeonly (and there's another word for you to collect, Alice) about the staunchness of Jain vegetarianism (something he repeats in all his stories) "" really, Mr Theroux, I'm sorry that some of us don't eat onions or garlic, and find little that's strange about it!
Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton
278 pages; Rs 392


First Published: Fri, November 16 2007. 00:00 IST