A home town is a home town. No matter how filthy and rotten it is (and Calcutta undoubtedly is), you don’t judge it by, say, its investment potential. It is where you passed your tenth standard exams, had your first crush, perhaps the first kiss even. So it must be a writer of some skill indeed who holds up a mirror to this city of fond memories and affectionate associations and makes your skin crawl. Without exaggerating or carrying the easy indignation of the White man’s eye. True, Theroux has a formidable resume and it’s possibly professional suicide to club him with the many White men writing on our Brown land. (I also risk Theroux’s wrath, given his proud description of himself as a travelling writer, not a travel writer in the interview alongside.) But I’m amazed by his magnificent, clear-eyed portrait of Calcutta. Swarming with people, sweating in the airless heat, reeking of filth, poverty and despair.
In a crummy hotel in this crumbling city, a visiting White writer falls hard for a mysterious American philanthropist. There’s a death too that he finds himself inexorably sucked into. And a dead hand, referring both to a sordid package the writer is delivered and his own dry spell of writing. Restless, fevered even, and awash with the portend of impending doom, Theroux’s latest is difficult to put down or forget. Much like the cold, clammy dead hand in the novel itself.