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Sunday October 28, 2007

Suite’s strong impression

This month’s celebrity loves moving around the world for her work in fashion, so she chose to review a book that takes her travelling – only this time, the journey is inwards into her conscience.


THE ELPHANTA SUITE 

By Paul Theroux 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages 

(ISBN: 978-0241144053) 

I’VE loved reading since I was introduced to Enid Blyton as a young girl in Kuching. 

That early favourite resulted in my being more familiar with heather on the moors than nipah palms in the mangroves....  

I’m glad to say I moved on and learnt to read lot more widely! 

Being an avid traveller, I developed a special liking for writing that can shed light on different parts of the world, and I particularly enjoy American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux’s always surprising and vibrant deconstruction of stereotypes in each book he writes.  

My immediate connection to Theroux’s Elephanta Suite came about because I have actually stayed in this particular suite, which is a real place in the beautiful Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai! 

The name triggers many joyous memories because my stay there, while I was doing some fashion work, was a lot of fun. 

(Truthfully, I was upgraded from an okay room elsewhere to this wonderful abode!) 

From the first few pages of this novel, I found myself taken on a vivid journey via Theroux’s keen observation of tumultuous modern India. 

But those who understand the country will know it to be a mix of all that is spiritual and mystical as well – and Theroux makes this point in this book. 

There are three different stories told here. 

The Monkey Hill is about Audie and Beth Blunden, an affluent couple that owns homes in four different places around the world. 

They travel a lot, yet their only experience of chaotic, populous India is the journey from the airport to the Aryuverdic Spa Agni at the palatial Maharaja Palace. 

Located at the foothills of the Himalayas, the spa offers the experience of exhilarating health treatments, yoga’s “Auuuummmm” and sensuous hot oil massages, which Audie describes thus: 

“...Like I’ve had a lube job, an oil change, all fluids checked, the nearest I’ve come to religion.” 

But as the story unfolds, we are at once horrified and fascinated at how their lives can spiral from seemingly endless idyllic moments to chaos.  

The second tale, The Gateway of India, is the journey of Dwight, an uptight Boston lawyer whose family name, Huntsinger, becomes Hund because it is considered unpronounceable in India – a country where Vijaynayar and Subramanium are common names!  

Dwight, who checks into the Elephanta Suite, likens his first days in India to being in hell, as the dirt, smell and chaos overpower his tentatively hopeful early expectations. 

But India works her magic, and he is transformed, finding relief and “love” of sorts in Mumbai’s unforgiving slums. 

The third story, The Elephant God, involves a young woman named Alice who is searching for the meaning of life. 

She thinks she’s found it in a Sai Baba ashram near Bangalore only to discover that the ashram is just an escape from the reality of life. 

In this story, Theroux introduces quirky characters created cleverly to emphasise India’s ironies. 

Their archaic “East India Company”-style spoken English changes as they acquire the new, modern gloss of an American-English (It’s “bodham” not “bottom”!) accent. In tandem, their gentle demeanours change to aggression.  

The three stories, you will find, actually intertwine and are weaved beautifully together by similar situations and characters appearing throughout.  

I had been looking for a book about the India I have seen and known when I came across this one, and I’m so glad I picked it up. 

With its examination of the key issues of life and the transformation a person’s character can undergo on a spiritual journey, The Elephanta Suite has made a strong impression on me, one that will last far longer than any impact a travel novel could make.  

The book kindles thoughts of how fleeting and transient this world is. As described by a Jain in an ashram, life is but “a flame in a storm, a bubble in a stream or a flash of lightning in a summer cloud”. 

It has penetrated deep into my conscience, and it might just affect you the same way, too, if you dare to give it a try.? 

 

n Datuk Tom Abang Saufi finds inspiration for her designs in the things she see and the books she reads. 

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