In this “candid, perceptive and intelligent” trio of novellas, the acclaimed travel writer presents tales of Westerners transformed by sojourns in India (Independent, UK).
These three intertwined novellas by the author of The Great Railway Bazaar capture the tumult, ambition, hardship, and serenity that mark today’s India. Theroux’s Westerners risk venturing far beyond the subcontinent’s well-worn paths to discover truth, peace, or woe.
A middle-aged couple on vacation veers heedlessly from idyll to chaos. A buttoned-up Boston lawyer finds succor in Mumbai’s reeking slums. And a young woman befriends an elephant in Bangalore. We also meet Indian characters as singular as they are reflective of the country’s subtle ironies: an executive who yearns to become a holy beggar, an earnest young striver whose personality is rewired by acquiring an American accent, a miracle-working guru, and others. As ever, Theroux’s portraits of people and places explode stereotypes to exhilarating effect.
The dismayed, disoriented American travelers in this trio of stereotype-shattering novellas from Theroux (following Blinding Light) lament the missing "solemn pieties" and "virtuous peasants" of the India they read about in novels. In "Monkey Hill," a wealthy ugly American type husband and wife take pampered health spa treatment at the foot of the Himalayas to be their due. But when the couple presume that the sybaritic care they're paying for includes invitations for sex with masseurs and waiters, their idyllic holiday takes a tragic turn. In "The Gateway of India," a fast-track Boston capitalist finds his loathing for the squalor of Mumbai's slums tempered by how easy it is to buy the affections of young women; meanwhile, his once obsequious Indian assistant is usurping his power. In "The Elephant God," a college graduate on her own encounters a young man whose call-center mastery of American dialect somehow rewires him from overly friendly striver to malevolent stalker. These unsettling tales about American travelers at odds with India's complexities are linked through passing references, but what they share most is a transformative menace that takes the place of spiritual succor.