Barry Slawter is a writer based in Philadelphia.
Paul Theroux is often best known for his travel writing, so it can be surprising to learn that a recent collection of three novellas, The Elephanta Suite, is the American author’s 30th published work of fiction. All three stories are set in India, and I found it interesting to consider Theroux’s rendering of the Indian subcontinent in light of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. That film set off protests in the streets of Mumbai in early February for what was perceived as a Western portrayal of life in its slums, and in Indian call centers.
Slumdog was directed by Danny Boyle and adapted from a novel by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. Following the protests, Swarup told the Associated Press that his story is a “slice of Indian life” and that he “does not see India’s slums as a place of despair.”
Regardless of whether you believe that the film’s Indian critics have a valid point, it is interesting to consider how the country is being portrayed by other, non-Indian writers based in the west. In the hands of a writer like Theroux, the “slums question” becomes one easy and obvious jumping off point for a more intricate discussion about India’s growing pains.
As one might expect from a veteran travel writer, Theroux knows how to attack stereotypes, and the novellas in The Elephanta Suite address American views of India in particular. Whether it’s the recent Ivy League grads backpacking to an ashram in “The Elephant God”, or a rich American couple dangerously misreading political winds from the comfort of their luxury spa in “Monkey Hill”, each novella comes with a general sense of foreboding.
In “The Gateway of India”, arguably the most forceful of the novellas, a business traveler with obvious “Ugly American” qualities goes from a distanced loathing of Mumbai to discovering personal freedom in the squalor of the slums. Regardless of believability, it’s a crazy ride that starts slow and builds to an echoing crescendo, speaking to both personal transformation and the state of globalization.
Most importantly perhaps, these multidimensional stories capture the nuances of modern culture clash, even while often suggesting a grim upshot. Theroux depicts Americans newly encountering the modern, globalizing India in a way that ultimately is artful and literary, not just fictionalized – albeit skillful – travel writing. Theroux wants to affirm that the world of Kipling is long dead and buried – an anachronistic museum piece, now paved over to make way for the steel and glass of Bangalore’s call centers.
Theroux has fun with it all, too, finding the inevitable humor in a vision of India as a crowded jumble of contradictions. “The Elephant God”‘s Alice talks about expecting to find “the world of Merchant Ivory films” but ends up teaching American dialect to call center reps, who need to learning phases like “let’s ramp up a solution.” Theroux ruminates about India being a land of “usable antiques,” a place where words like “utterance,” “thrice,” or “audacious” might easily get dropped into casual conversation.
These were the words the East India Company had brought from England hundreds of years before, and they were still spoken and written, no matter how musty they seemed. Perhaps Indians used these words to give themselves dignity, power, or presence, but the effect was comic.
Theroux, a master of language himself, sounds like he has that part just about nailed – both the linguistic observations and the sense of the chasm between cultures, addressing big themes like “modern versus traditional” and “East meets West.”
It all made the Slumdog protests just a little more comprehensible, too. One of the protesters in a February Reuters report declared, “They have made a mockery of us, they have hurt our sentiments.” Thanks to Theroux, reading this quote left me pondering vocabulary, wondering whether the protester had been to call-center dialect class. A small shift in perspective that was one of this book’s many gifts.