Why does Paul Theroux hate India?

Probably because he wants to sell a lot of books.

I just finished reading The Elephanta Suite, a book comprised of three long stories – “Monkey Hill”, “The Elephant God”, and “The Gateway of India”. On the surface, the stories deal with Americans transported to India who find themselves in complex situations. Unfortunately, these are not stories which shed light on the transplanted characters or the situations into which they are thrust as much as these are vehicles from which the author repeatedly launches a hate-filled polemic. A passage from “Monkey Hill” demonstrates the ferocious tone which Theroux employs ad nauseum:

The miracle…was that India was not a country but a creature, like a monstrous body crawling  with smaller creatures pestilential with people – a big, horrific being, sometimes angry and loud, sometimes passive and stinking, always hostile, even dangerous.

And in a passage in “The Elephant God” almost two hundred pages later.

The smells of India still terrified her. From a distance, India was splendor, up close, misery.

It is a view that permeates Theroux’s other works as well. In A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, a novel displaying a woeful ignorance of crime, characterization, and not in the least, Calcutta:

“…Anyone who has not learned to hate India has not spent enough time here.”

As one would expect, Theroux is not widely read in India. He seems to be held in higher esteem among literary critics elsewhere. Pico Iyer, an author who I admire reviewed The Elephanta Suite for Time magazine:

Theroux’s strength as a writer and a traveler has always come from his readiness to say and do what few of us would admit to, and it’s a safe bet that these gleefully impenitent stories will not be promoted by the American Chamber of Commerce or the Indian Ministry of Tourism. Monkeys are likened to humans in the first sentence of the book, and in one story the only sympathetic creature is a murderous elephant. Pieties old and new are shot down with every politically incorrect maneuver.
The ability to be a jerk and say something shocking might make one an expert judge on a reality television show: it doesn’t necessarily make one a compelling writer. Perhaps, Iyer and I have not read the same books or seen the same films. I’ve read quite a few of “gleefully impenitent stories” depicting natives as Oriental savages with no redeeming qualities and colonials as civilizing influences. At least E.M. Forster was charming in his inaccurate portrayals of Indians and colonialists. Having read Theroux, I find him to be nothing more than the literary successor to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

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12 thoughts on “Why does Paul Theroux hate India?

  1. Ooops! Theroux seems to have totally riled you up! You know that comment ‘always hostile…even dangerous’ – perhaps India picked up on his negativity and pitched it right back at him! 🙂 I started reading a book called ‘Holy Cow’ by someone called Sarah Macdonald. The starting pages so completely antagonised me that I abandoned the book. Those who did complete reading it said that it improved later. But nothing can induce me to take up reading the book again.
    Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I can opt not to read such books.

    • There are some folks who do satire well and I don’t want to come off as someone who doesn’t handle criticism well. But if all you’re looking for is negativity then as you say, that is all you’ll find anywhere.

  2. I started reading Great Railway Bazaar and by the end of it was completely put off by his writing. (Haven’t gone back to Theroux ever since. Pico Iyer OTOH is like a guilty habit I can’t get myself to kick.) “Bengalis are as dark as the goddess Kali they worship” Eh, where did that come from?! This when he’s sitting in a train snaking through Eastern India. I don’t want to know what happens when he steps out and the full force of dark and dusty India hits him.

    /rant

    • It isn’t the occasional snide comment that I find annoying. It is his persistent monotone.

      Also, curiously, at least among the books I’ve read, the outsiders are just curious naive onlookers, while the natives are the villains. I don’t like characters or locations to be black-and-white like that.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. My quibble is that this type of thing tends to be one way. You often have the western writer putting down foreign countries in both subtle and unsubtle ways. Yet the reverse is almost never true. You never find Indian writers highlighting the stupidities and inanities of western culture. And do not be fooled by the hype, there are many stupidities and inanities of western culture as well.

    It is also worth noting that India was heavily influenced by colonial rule by the British for two hundred years and its poverty and problems today may have come from that very root.

    I think Indians need to remember their distinguished history and civilization prior to these influences. Then , perhaps there will be a return to pride and sel-respect and the issues that India has can be resolved.

    • Your comment reminds me of a very sarcastic comment hidden within layers of infantile humor in an episode of South Park.

      In a particular episode, a recurring character known as ‘chef’ ridicules the Chinese in unflattering terms. Following suit, the boys mock a Chinese-American. Chef explains in a shocked tone that this is not done: while it is acceptable (and encouraged) that you berate other cultures, countries and foreigners outside the country, it is inappropriate to make fun of the same cultural traditions when adhered to by citizens.

      Your broader point about one-way criticism is an interesting one.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Controversy does sell, doesn’t it? 🙂

    Some people seem to have a pre-conceived notion of what India is like. And people like reading things which merely confirm their stereotypes. It’s better than reading something that makes you challenge your basic assumptions about things.

  5. To be frank, I do agree with Anirban 100%.. everytime I read any travel materials this man writes about a third world country, or any country that does not have it “easy” , and only a certain population is not up to date with current affairs, or even “educated” as he thinks he is, he considers them backward and the language he uses is offensive and impolite. I find his idea /method of journalism vulgar and ugly.

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