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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