Three brilliant, loosely concatenated stories, all set in India and all about spiritual quests.
Theroux (Blinding Light, 2005, etc.) places his characters in positions in which they are forced either to see or to discover ambiguity and paradox in their experience in and around Mumbai. In the first story, “Monkey Hill,” Audie and Beth Blunden are enjoying a spa vacation in India, and while a part of them wants the elitist experience of separation and comfort offered by the posh amenities at Agni, an Indian resort where every desire for personal comfort is anticipated, another part of them craves the chaos and perhaps even danger of the “real” India, represented by the teeming confusion of Hanuman Nagar, the local village. They get increasingly reckless as they breech barriers separating Indian from westerner. The next story, “The Gateway of India,” follows the adventures of American lawyer Dwight Huntsinger, who is sent unwillingly on a business trip to India but who discovers India as a locus of his personal heart of darkness, where shameful desires can be realized and acted upon. Eventually, however, he discovers that the ancient culture of India does in fact disclose real answers to spiritual questions, and Dwight realizes the truth that “a lack of holiness impedes enlightenment.” At the end of the novella he finds himself in the unlikely, but dramatically convincing, position of becoming a holy man. The final story, “The Elephant God,” finds Alice Durand, a recent graduate of Brown University, teaching Indian “outsourcers” to speak with credible American accents. After she is stalked and then violated by one of her students, she realizes she must create her own “justice” to counter a stonewalling legal system hostile to young western women traveling alone.
Whether they realize it or not, Theroux’s characters are all seekers, and all of them wind up on paths much different from those they originally imagined.