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The Elephanta Suite: Three Novellas by Paul…
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The Elephanta Suite: Three Novellas

by Paul Theroux

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In these three slightly linked novellas, Theroux takes us beyond the usual culture shock stories, but yet the stories are not about India, only set in India. His characters are American tourists, not even expats, and because we readers must see the world as they do, it becomes difficult for Theroux to signal to us what they are misunderstanding or not seeing. It's the same problem Forster and many others faced when describing the foreign experience in India to an audience of foreigners who don't know any better. As a result, Theroux’s prose is at times overly expository, presumably because he can't expect an American reader to recognize place names, know about temple/mosque conflicts, Jains, etc. Additionally, one could tick with a pencil the places where Theroux must have realized that some detail was needed for plot later on and so added it in with a clunk.

Meanwhile, the plots themselves strain under a strange tension. All three novellas seem at first to be ironic but relatively sympathetic to the protagonists, who are all one way or another blind not only to the realities of India but to their own needs and distorted relationships. But then the plots pick up speed and veer into the macabre. It’s like starting with Forster and ending with Saki. The endings are satisfying, but so obviously artful that the tales lose, in retrospect, any plausibility.

Maybe the lack of plausibility is a good thing, since Theroux's stereotypes (crafty Jains, violent Muslims, stupid nouveaux riches, etc), although updated to the current century, are still flat and ugly.
  Nycticebus | Dec 21, 2013 |
Three semi-related stories about India show us the less seemly side of the country. The prose is lush yet simple, and the characters well drawn. Moreover, it is obvious that Theroux both knows and loves India and everything that the characters go through seem realistic and authentic. The couple who are drawn to the spa and its employees, the businessman who tries, but cannot ignore the seedier side of the city and the young woman staying at an ashram trying to escape her life.

While it drags a touch in places, overall an interesting book - but not his finest. ( )
  Davida.Chazan | Sep 7, 2013 |
This is a thought provoking read. 3 different and interesting novellas of different lives in India. A American couple spend a few weeks at a luxurious spa in India. An American lawyer comes to India to negotiate contracts between American and Indian companies. A young woman comes to India and joins an ashram.

In each of these stories, these individuals have preconceived ideas of what defines India. Each one will have their first impressions of India affirm their initial assumptions. Each one will start to experience India through the people they interact with and slowly they change and their impressions change. The interactions that make such a difference in these stories span the spectrum of the diversity of people in India. We are introduced to those in the service trade, prostitutes, ambitious executives, an elephant mahout, the spoiled rich and pimps among others. Theroux slowly peels the obvious away and starts to help us uncover subtleties in mannerism, ideology and culture on both sides, that of the foreigners who have immersed themselves to varying degrees in India, as well as that of the Indians themselves.

These individuals who came to India will not leave unchanged. Each journey is described with such pointed detail you're drawn to the characters. ( )
  cameling | Jun 3, 2010 |
Book Review - The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux
I'm not as much a fan of Paul Theroux' fiction as I am of his travel writings but I wanted to read The Elephanta Suite for its cover photograph. What's so special about the cover you ask? It shows a vista that has now been crudely obscured by an ugly, if necessary flyover. The photograph shows Mohammed Ali Road, a center of Muslim life in Mumbai, scene of glorious mayhem, food and people, cars and scooters, everyone jostling for space. It is the neighborhood my dad grew up in and which I regularly visited all through my childhood. To the right is the Minara Masjid, where I have prayed with my dad, in the bottom right corner is Suleman Usman Mithaiwala, where I have shopped for sweets, and further down the street is Noble Opticians, my optometerists for twenty years. Unfortunately, Mohammed Ali Road has nothing to do with the book itself. The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas, each set in a different section of India with only the slightest passing reference to each other. The three locations as separated by space as by culture. The first story takes place in an exotic mountainside spa, the second alternates between the posh hotels and seedy slums of Mumbai while the third unravels in Sai Baba's ashram and a call center in Bangalore. I'm not sure if I'm saying this as an interested party but I found Mr. Theroux' depiction of Indians less than fair. Admittedly, I don't have the perspective of an American in the Indian situations described by Mr. Theroux. However, the caricature of almost every Indian his American characters come across as money grubbing, self centered or sexually desperate seems quite harsh. The American characters are relatively more sympathetic, but no less pitiful - which begs the question, is this book just an exaggerated expression of Mr. Theroux' dour view of the world? I find it hard to conclude otherwise.
I found the first novella weak but the denouement of the latter two is quite satisfying. Recommended. ( )
1 vote ubaidd | May 20, 2010 |
Theroux is not...well...cheery, but at its best this reminded me a little of Graham Greene or the best of Somerset Maugham. What happens to folks when they step (or imagine that they can step...or are pushed) out of their normal lives? ( )
  rodrichards | Sep 2, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
The final story, “The Elephant God,” finds Alice Durand, a recent graduate of Brown University, teaching Indian “outsourcers” to speak with credible American accents. After she is stalked and then violated by one of her students, she realizes she must create her own “justice” to counter a stonewalling legal system hostile to young western women traveling alone. Whether they realize it or not, Theroux’s characters are all seekers, and all of them wind up on paths much different from those they originally imagined.
added by John_Vaughan | editKirkus (Jul 21, 2011)
 
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They were round-shouldered and droopy-headed like mourners, the shadowy child-sized creatures, squatting by the side of the sloping road.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618943323, Hardcover)

A master of the travel narrative weaves three intertwined novellas of Westerners transformed by their sojourns in India.

This startling, far-reaching book captures 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 woe or truth or peace. 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 Elephanta Suite urges us toward a fresh, compelling, and often inspiring notion of what India is, and what it can do to those who try to lose--or find--themselves there.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:33 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"This book captures 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 woe or truth or peace. 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." "Theroux's portraits of people and places explode stereotypes. The Elephanta Suite urges us toward a fresh, compelling, and often inspiring notion of what India is, and what it can do to those who try to lose - or find - themselves there."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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