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.
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PAUL THEROUX is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
They were round-shouldered and droopy-headed like mourners, the shadowy child-sized creatures, squatting by the side of the sloping road. All facing the same way, too, as though silently venerating the muted dirty sunset beyond the holy city. Motionless at the edge of the ravine, they were miles from the city and the wide flat river that snaked into the glow, the sun going gray, smoldering in a towering heap of dust like a cloudbank. The lamps below had already come on, and in the darkness the far-off city lay like a velvety textile humped in places and picked out in squirts of gold. What were they looking at? The light dimmed, went colder, and the creatures stirred.
They’re almost human,” Audie Blunden said, and looked closer and saw their matted fur.
With a bark like a bad cough, the biggest monkey raised his curled tail, lowered his arms, and thrust forward on his knuckles. The others, skittering on smaller limbs, followed him, their tails nodding; and the distinct symmetry of the roadside disappeared under the tumbling bodies as the great troop of straggling monkeys moved along the road and up the embankment toward the stringy trees at the edge of the forest.
They scare me,” Beth Blunden said, and though the nearest monkey was more than fifteen feet away she could feel the prickle of its grubby fur creeping across the bare skin of her arm.
She remembered sharply the roaring baboon in Kenya which had appeared near her cot under the thorn trees like a demon, its doggy teeth crowding its wide-open mouth. The thing had attacked the guide’s dog, a gentle Lab, bitten its haunch, laying it open to the bone, before being clubbed away by the maddened African. That was another of their trips.
I hate apes,” Beth said.
They’re monkeys.” Same thing.” No. Apes are more like us,” Audie said, and in the darkness he covertly picked his nose. Was it the dry air?
I think it’s the other way around.” But Audie hadn’t heard. He was peering into the thickening dusk. Incredible,” he said in a whisper. I think they were watching the sunset, just lingering for the last warmth of the sun.” Like us,” she said.
And Beth stared at him, not because of what he’d said but the way he’d said it. He sounded so pompous chewing on this simple observation. They traveled a lot, and she had noticed how travel often made this normally straightforward man pretentious.
They were at the edge of a low summit, one of the foothills of the Himalayas, above the holy city. Farther up the ridge from where they were staying a health spa called Agni on a clear day they could see snow- topped peaks. They had come to Agni for their health, planning to stay a week. The week passed quickly. They stayed another, and now they renewed their arrangement from week to week, telling themselves that they’d leave when they were ready. They were world travelers, yet they’d never seen anything like this.
Still, the file of monkeys hurried up the road with a skip-drag gait, the big bold monkey leader up front, now and then barking in his severe cough-like way.
Good evening.” A man emerged from the twilit road, stepping neatly to allow the monkeys to pass by. The Blundens were not startled. Their three weeks here had prepared them. They had not seen much of India, but they knew that whenever they had hesitated anywhere, looking puzzled or even thoughtful, an Indian had stepped forward to explain, usually an old man, a bobble- headed pedant, urgent with irrelevancies. This one wore a white shirt, a thick vest and scarf, baggy pants, and sandals. Big horn-rimmed glasses distorted his eyes.
I see you are in process of observing our monkeys.” Like the other explainers, this one precisely summed up what they’d been doing.
Do not be perplexed,” he went on.
It was true they had been perplexed.
They are assembling each evening. They are taking last of warmth into bodies.” He had the voluptuous and slightly starved way of saying bodies,” giving the word flesh.
I figured so,” Audie said. That’s what I said to my wife didn’t I, Beth?” They are also looking at smoke and fires at temple in town.” That was another thing they’d found. Indians like this never listened. They would deliver a monologue, usually informative but oddly without emphasis, as though it were a recitation, and did not appear to be interested in anything the Blundens had to say.
What temple?” What town?” the Blundens asked at once.
The Indian was pointing into the darkness. When sun is down, monkeys hasten away see to the trees where they will spend night hours, safe from harm’s way. Leopards are there. Not one or two, but abundant. Monkeys are their meat.” Meat” was another delicious word, like body,” which the man uttered as if tempted by it, giving it the sinewy density and desire of something forbidden. But he hadn’t answered them.
There’s leopards here on Monkey Hill?” Audie asked.
The old man seemed to wince in disapproval, and Audie guessed it was his saying Monkey Hill” but that was what most people called it, and it was easier to remember than its Indian name.
It is believed that Hanuman Giri is exact place where monkey god Hanuman plucked the mountain of herbals and healing plants for restoring life of Rama’s brother Lakshman.” Yes, that was it, Hanuman Giri. At first they had thought he was answering their question about leopards, but what was this about herbals?
As you can find in Ramayana,” the Indian said, and pointed with his skinny hand. There, do you see mountain beyond some few trees?” and did not wait for a reply. Not at all. It is empty space where mountain once stood. Now it is town and temple. Eshrine, so to say.” No one mentioned any temple.” At one time was Muslim mosque, built five centuries before, Mughal era, on site of Hanuman temple. Ten years ago, trouble, people invading mosque and burning. Monkeys here are observing comings and goings, hither and thither.” I have a headache,” Beth said, and thought, Inwading? Eshrine?
Many years ago,” the Indian man said, as though Mrs. Blunden had not spoken Was he deaf? Was any of this interesting? I was lost in forest some three or four valleys beyond here, Balgiri side. Time was late, afternoon in winter season, darkness coming on. I saw a troop of monkeys and they seemed to descry that I was lost. I was lightly clad, unprepared for rigors of cold night. One monkey seemed to beckon to me. He led, I followed. He was chattering, perhaps to offer reassurance. Up a precipitous cliff at top I saw correct path beneath me. I was thus saved. Hanuman saved me, and so I venerate image.” The monkey god,” Beth said.
Hanuman is deity in image of monkey, as Ganesh is image of elephant, and Nag is cobra,” the Indian said. And what is your country, if you please?” We’re Americans,” Beth said, happy at last to have been asked.
There are many wonders here,” the Indian said, unimpressed by what he’d just heard. You could stay here whole lifetime and still not see everything.” We’re up at Agni,” Audie said. The lodge. Just took a walk down here to see the sunset.” Like the monkeys.” The Indian wasn’t listening. He was scowling at the valley he had described, where the mountain had been uprooted.
How old do you think I am?” he asked. You will never guess.” Seventy-something.” I am in my eighty-third year. I do yoga meditation every morning for one hour. I have never tasted meat nor alcoholic beverage. Now I will go home and take little dhal and puri and curd, that is all.” Where do you live?” Just here. Hanuman Nagar.” Your village?” The old man exploded with information. Township of Hanuman Nagar is substantial, with a market and textiles weaving and sundry spheres of commercial enterprise, including iron mongeries, pot-making, clay-baking, for house tiles, kilns and enameling.” No one mentioned a town,” Audie said.
As well as fruit and nut trees. I myself am wholesaling nut meats. Also, as mentioned, Hanuman eshrine. Ancient temple. I bid you good evening.” With that he stepped into the darkness. The Blundens walked up the road in the opposite direction, remarking, as they went, on the poise of the old man, his self-possession, his pedantry. How easy it was to jeer at him, yet he had told them several things they hadn’t known: the town, its industries, the Hanuman story, the temple business. He was faintly ridiculous, yet you couldn’t mock him he was real. What they had been thinking of as simply Monkey Hill had a history, and drama, an Indian name, and now on that lower slope a neighboring settlement.
Did you understand what he said about the mosque and the temple?” Audie shrugged and said, Beth, you get these Indians talking and they flog a dead horse into dog food.”
They had a surprise walking back up the road to the lodge. They passed through a large gateway. They had seen the gateway coming down, but they had not seen the signs: Right of Entry Prohibited Except by Registered Guests and No Trespassing and Authorized Vehicles Only.
This means you!” Audie said, shaking his finger into the darkness. Get your happy ass out of here!” You’re awful, Butch,” Beth said, and giggled because it was dark and they were...
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