"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." -Mahatma Gandhi
Desire can drive us to do crazy things; pursue something or someone that we know is wrong or seek revenge on someone who has hurt us. It can drive simple minded individuals into becoming materialistic or rude and it can take seemingly innocent people and turn them into criminals. Sadly, it hits everyone. Even the pious man who is committed to doing no harm can be conquered by a wanting. No one can predict when they are going to be overcome by a wave of lust or yearning. It is inevitable. But, it’s what we do with it that counts.
The Gateway of India and The Elephant God, two novellas in Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, first come across as completely opposite stories: the business man’s not-quite-appropriate trysts versus the young woman on the quest for self discovery in an ashram. But farther and farther into the stories, it became blindingly apparent; these aren’t the stories of saviors coming into a culture more disturbed than their own and aiding those they meet, these are the stories of blind-sighted Americans creating monsters out of others and of themselves from an all-consuming desire.
Dwight and Alice, both Americans, travel to India for different purposes. On Dwight’s first trip, he comes unwillingly on business, and is constantly hoping that someone would “get [him] out of here” (84). For Dwight, it was “a week of Indian hell,” and he desperately wanted to go home, even though his home life was not much better (84). In his grand sweeping generalization of India, Dwight felt that it was “not a place to enjoy but one to endure” (86). Although Alice is disappointed with India at first, it’s not like the disgust Dwight feels. Alice imagined India to be full of splendor, and rather than coming to the land she had pictured, with “jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men,” she found that it was lonely and “a land of empty corners” (190,197).
Eventually, the two find comfort in aspects of India, whether it be through the people or merely through developing a routine. They soon move on in their feelings of comfort to feel almost like they are needed and powerful and this is where they display the greatest shift in personality. Dwight’s downfall comes in the form of Indru and her sister Padmini. On their first meeting, her “formality [and] the mode of her politeness [make] hims feel, if not powerful, then dominant--in charge in this lonely place” (105). He immediately feels that he has control, even though it was she, that approached him and filled him with enough desire to lose interest in Sumitra. Dwight sees Indru as an image of innocence. The white dress that she wears on their first meeting and “her willingness to kiss seemed like the proof that she wasn’t a whore” (106). He thinks these girls are victims and is blinded by the thought that the girls think of him as a hero. Ironically, he is just the type of men that usually use these young girls and victimizes them. His attendance of Shrinaji Gala Dinner dance to Aid Women in Crisis is an irony in itself. By going, he thinks of himself even more highly as others praise him for his coming.
After all the coddling that he provides the girls, they soon to rely on him for materialistic goods, knowing that he will deliver. Because Dwight believes that “giving her [Indru] money when she said ‘ring money gone’ was his way of possessing her,” he continues to do so (132). Dwight almost sees himself in these girls, believing that he too was once “India’s victim” (138). In his mind, if he can overcome the hardships there, why shouldn’t they? Soon, he changes his view of himself, modifying it so it is now that of a superman, not a possessor. Even though he once admitted it to himself that he was enjoying the power, he worries that others will see him that way and insists (at least to himself) that “he [is] a benefactor,” and “had rescued” both girls (147).
It is not long after this that he starts to put himself even higher on the food chain and see the girls not as victims, but as “parodies” (157). They continue telling him their stories and he becomes fed up with the repetition. He wanted Indru to speak out to help her overcome the hardships, but now that she is, he wishes to silence her once more. In his mind, his only release from her talking is sex. Dwight created a whimpering, materialistic girl in his attempts to make himself into the hero he wished to be. By the end of the story, he “had had a vision of himself as a holy man on a dusty road” (186). His opinion of himself is so high now that he sees himself in the same way as Shah’s pious relative. To sum up: the desire that Dwight felt to the girls and for the feeling of being a hero, led him to create a monster both out of himself and out of the “victims.” Quickly too, similarly to the girls, by sending Shah to the states, Dwight changed him, making him into someone who “had been persuaded that he was interesting” (168). But I want to move on the The Elephant God.
Excuse the slightly briefer discussion of the next story. Regardless, In The Elephant God, Alice too creates a monster out of Amitabh. She teaches him to speak in an American sounding way to sound better on the telephone lines for his job. While she intends to just help him with his accent, she accidentally modifies his personality along with it. He goes from being polite and earnest to being stubborn and abusive. At his worst, he rapes her and turns her into a victim of the law system. The desire to seek revenge on Amitabh is what leads her to forcing the elephant on him, and even though she was in an ashram that insists upon peacefulness, she is driven by her strong emotions to kill him.