January 27, 2013

Paul Theroux Captures a Changing-India in "The Elephanta Suite"

For some reason, I received several of Paul Theroux writings as Christmas gifts this year. In the past, I've read short essays and articles of Theroux in magazines and newspapers, but The Elephanta Suite is the first book of his that I read. The Elephanta Suite consists of three novellas, in all of which the protagonists spend some time at the Elephanta Suite in Mumbai.

The title of the book is what made me pick it up over the other Theroux readings waiting on my bookshelf such as The Lower River and The Kingdom by the Sea. The title piqued me because I remembered visiting the Elephanta Caves near Mumbai as a child, and I was intrigued by the fact that Theroux, an American writer, had perhaps used the same as a title to his book of novellas.  Unfortunately, I still haven't been able to come up with a convicing deeper meaning to the title other than the fact that Elephanta Suite is a hotel room that features in all three novellas of the book. Regardless, I'm still pondering over whether Theroux used the creativity, the nurturing, and the destruction artistically portrayed in the Elephanta caves as the underlying theme for the three novellas. Seemingly a little far fetched, but I can see how the concept of Vamadeva, Anugrahamurti, and Bhairava, different avatars of Shiva in those caves, could trigger literary imagination such as Theroux's, who is both a writer of fiction and an acclaimed travel writer as well.

Although the three novellas are looped  together by their setting and their American protagonists, each novella has a distinct flavor and a unique after taste. The first novella The Monkey Hill  has a rich American married couple visiting an Ayurvedic Spa resort near Mumbai in an effort to understand and sort out a tenuous relationship. Theroux in the course of this novella doles out the expected and the surprising to his readers as we follow the two protagonists "in search of kicks and watch with mounting trepidation as their blindness to cultural nuances, their first-world illusions of invulnerability and their reckless sensuality lure them into dark and fatal corners where their traveler’s checks and consulates can’t save them."

The second novella, The Gateway of India is about Dwight, a germophobic young businessman from Boston, seeking new outsourcing deals in Mumbai for his American company.  He is on a second visit to India, a place he says is "dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he’d ever been. ‘Hideous’ did not describe it; there were no words for it. It was like an experience of grief, leaving you mute and small.”  In fact, Dwight when we first see him, could well be espousing Kipling's, 'Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'.

The Elephant God, the last of the three novellas, impressed me the most in that it came together neatly at the end; perhaps, that's how Theroux wanted it to be. In fact, I understood the earlier two novellas better after reading this third novella. This novella deals with the plain-Jane Alice, a graduate of Brown who very soon figures out that the real India is not akin to what she saw in the movies, nor is it like what some native writers had made it appear because 'Where were the big, fruitful families from these novels, where were the jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men?' It is with these unanswered questions in mind that Alice sets out to seek enlightenment at the Sai Baba Ashram near Bangalore. Truly, 'a leap in the dark' for her in Theroux's words because it will leave her 'a different person at the other end'. 

The Elephanta Suite, published in 2007, could have paved the way for writers such as Anand Girdhardas who tried to capture the essence of a changing-India, except that Theroux, in this book,  does it so casually, yet deftly with the elan of a master writer. Unwittingly, Theroux's dragnet of call centers, god-men, child prostitution, and other socio economic realities of changing -India are laid bare to the reader, who is left awed and enlightened 'at the other end'! In the Elephanta Suite Theroux has brilliantly used his mastery as travel writer and fiction writer to illustrate the face of a changing nation as also the changing psyche of its inhabitants. He has definitely stripped the stereotypical romance and exoticism that India has long been associated with, and instead he presents a snapshot of contemporary India that is 'swarming, seductive, anachronistic, and which has a disorienting dynamism' that defies definition even as it demands a deeper delving into the human condition of those Theroux calls the 'accessible poor' and who constitute a significant majority.

Having enjoyed reading Theroux's "The Elephanta Suite', I now plan to read his other books that have been waiting on my book shelf since Christmas.

January 21, 2013

George Orwell's 'Dilemma' Remembered.

"A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

And later still the times were good,
We were so easy to please,
We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
On the bosoms of the trees.

All ignorant we dared to own
The joys we now dissemble;
The greenfinch on the apple bough
Could make my enemies tremble.

But girl's bellies and apricots,
Roach in a shaded stream,
Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
All these are a dream.

It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:
Horses are made of chromium steel
And little fat men shall ride them.

I am the worm who never turned,
The eunuch without a harem;
Between the priest and the commissar
I walk like Eugene Aram;

And the commissar is telling my fortune
While the radio plays,
But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
For Duggie always pays.

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn't born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?"

by George Orwell

"A writer's starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.... I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.....The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us."

Orwell's dilemma lives on!

January 02, 2013

Ang Lee's Movie "Life of PI" Illustrates 'Life Will Defend Itsef, No Matter How Small It Is!'

The failings of the flesh are clearly more powerful than the refrain of religion, or so Ang Lee’s movie “The Life of Pi” appears to suggest.  A story within a story, the movie is definitely a must see, but I felt the movie, despite some brilliant acting by newbie Suraj Sharma playing the young Pi, did not hold up to Martel’s award winning novel, "The Life of Pi.". 

Ang Lee’s captures the drama on the high seas with the elan of a maestro. It’s almost as if the emotional and moral storm that rages within Pi, the protagonist, manifests itself in the angry waves that lash and virtually tear apart the boat that Pi is forced to share with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded Zebra, and Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger, in the aftermath of a shipwreck. 

This story within a story could pass off as a simplistic fable for children to watch on a 3D screen; however, it could as well embed itself permanently in the viewer’s mind as a story that defies closure. What did Pi do on that boat, and what was done to him will have to be decided by the viewer. Not a wonder then, Yann Martel, the 2001 Man Booker Prize winning author of the novel "Life of Pi" also leaves it to the readers to decide what they wanted to have happened to Pi on that boat and whether  "Richard Parker is more than just a tiger... Some people could say it’s Pi himself. Some people can, in a sense, say it’s like God -- we're afraid of God, but he brings comfort and he keeps us going, which is what the tiger Richard Parker did."