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We all know the type: travelers who head to India with exotic visions of yoga, meditation and nirvana dancing in their heads. They eat the regional cuisine, chat with the locals, visit the famous sites, all the while believing they are truly immersing themselves in the indigenous culture. And, while some come away truly changed by their experience (for the better), these aren’t the people Paul Theroux focuses on in his latest book, “The Elephanta Suite,” a collection of novellas out in September.
The stories follow three sets of Americans in the South Asian country, all of whom meet with less-than-happy ends.
“Something that stimulated me is the idea that there are so many books by Indians about India which show a different India. It shows their India. So it seems to me any American reading that would be very, very confused,” remarks Theroux, a prolific traveler and author who first went to the country in the late Sixties. “I can’t stop being an American. I can’t look into the heart of an Indian. On the other hand, the idea of an American kind of going wrong, misunderstanding India, is something that really interests me.”
Certainly the characters in “The Elephanta Suite” have gross misconceptions about their surroundings. In “Monkey Hill,” a privileged married couple continues to extend its stay at a posh, lush spa, becoming intimate with the comely staff members only to find themselves brutally tossed out of paradise. A lawyer away on business in “The Gateway of India” begins leading a double life in Mumbai’s red-light district. And a naive Brown graduate embarks on a solitary journey in “The Elephant God” with dire consequences.
The stories came out of a transcontinental trip Theroux took in two legs last year, beginning in London and ending in Tokyo, including a return on the Trans-Siberian Express and stops in Istanbul, Sri Lanka and, of course, India. It was actually a reprisal of a journey he took over five months in 1973 that resulted in his first travel book, “The Great Railway Bazaar.” Theroux chose to revisit the same route and along the way wrote “The Elephanta Suite.” (He is currently working on a larger nonfiction account of this expedition.)
“The greatest change was in me,” remarks the author, contemplating the passing of time. “Because I’m older and I don’t wander around at night. But every country had changed in a different way: some for the better; some for the worse.”
Theroux is quite familiar with the impact travel can have on individuals. With more than 40 works of fiction, nonfiction and criticism to his name, he has spent much of his life writing about places as diverse as Hong Kong, Singapore (where he lived and taught), Argentina, New Zealand, Tahiti, London and Central America. Theroux grew up in Massachusetts, one of seven children of a French-Canadian father and Italian mother. But ever since his earliest overseas adventure — six unbroken years beginning in 1963 living in Central Africa — he has been fascinated by the effects of being an outsider. Generally he has remained one, spending most of his adulthood living abroad.
“It made me a traveler,” says Theroux of his time in Africa, which included work for the Peace Corps in Malawi. “It made me interested in the way people live in other countries.”
It also has made him extremely critical of the current charitable fascination with the continent among the celebrity contingent.
“People mention Africa now as though it was some pathetic, sick patient. Everyone’s saying, ‘We’ve got to fix it.’ Bono and Bill Clinton and Madonna and everyone’s going there to see Nelson Mandela. Oprah [Winfrey]’s got a school….They’re all wrong. They’re actually doing, I think, no good. It wasn’t like this in the Sixties. People were not trying to rehabilitate themselves by going to Africa,” bemoans Theroux. “I think these are people who need to fix themselves. There’s something in their own lives that’s not quite right and their way of fixing it…is to go to another country and patronize them.”
This skepticism for those who see the Third World as their altruistic oyster has not, however, lessened his fascination with how people behave when heading abroad. “I’m very interested in the way Americans travel and what happens to them when they go overseas: isolated people. I suppose if there’s a theme, that’s what it is: the odd man/woman out.”
If, at times, that means his books can, as some critics have claimed, read like an ongoing thesis about the ignorance of travelers, that hasn’t stopped Theroux from seeking out challenging locales. Once he finishes work on his nonfiction account (dividing his time between his homes in Oahu, where he has a beekeeping farm, and Cape Cod, Mass.) it will be off to another, as-yet-undecided country, one ripe with creative possibilities.
“I’m more interested in places that are going wrong than places that are going right,” he says. “I mean, if I had the choice, I would rather go to Pakistan or Zimbabwe than the South of France.”