One had half a mind to take Paul Theroux’s tirade against films with more than a pinch of salt. After all, wasn’t he the man who had written My Other Life about a novelist called Paul Theroux in which he had invented the most bizarre incidents in his doppelganger’s (the ghostly double of a living person) life including one in which the protagonist farted while shaking hands with the Queen?
Maybe he was just saying these things to shock the roomful of seemingly immovable people who had collected at the USIS’s Lincoln Room on Tuesday to know a little more about America’s most well-known travel writer in town for the doomed Kolkata Book Fair. <b1>
“It is three hours of insult. It’s instant gratification. It beguiles you and eats away your brain,” he thundered relentlessly, no doubt revelling in the effect his diatribe had upon his readers.
But what about the films made from his novels? “That was only for money,” he said unflappably, as though that completely explained his stand on the matter. But he had a little more to add to his denunciation of celluloid as a superficial medium. “If a book is like a live, kicking, strong and stamping bull, a film can be likened to a bouillon cube from which you make soup,” he said, again eliciting incredulous gasps from his audience. <b2>
While on the subject of movies, Theroux had a word or two to say about Bollywood as well. “It’s like rasgullas, gulabjamuns or laddoos… so sticky that you get it on your fingers. But there’s no nutrition in them,” says the man many of whose novels such as The Mosquito Coast, Kowloon Tong, Saint Jack and Dr Slaughter have been made into films.
However, he speaks with admiration of fellow American author JD Salinger who had refused to sell the film rights of his seminal novel, The Catcher in the Rye.
If making money was his motive for selling the film rights to his novels, he points out that making “piles of it” was not his object. “Just enough to see me through my next book…” is how he would describe his requirements.
For a man who now divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, taking time away from his writing to be a beekeeper and selling his honey under the brand name of Oceania Ranch Pure Hawaiian Honey, money is not really as unimportant as he would have us believe.
Controversy clearly doesn’t bother the man. But his response when the question of his celebrated spat with VS Naipaul inevitably crops up is: “He’s a difficult man and a wonderful writer. I wrote unsparingly about our friendship after it was over. I don’t like to talk about other authors.” He philosophises about how friendship was purer than love in that it had no sexual overtones.
His flippant, bantering tone returns when he says a film based on his book about the relationship, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, could have been made into a film with Amitabh Bachchan as the Nobel Laureate and Raj Kapoor as him.
Said to be an inveterate avoider of interviewers, Theroux has an explanation for his behaviour. “I think I’m not interesting enough. I’m too impatient and rather more curious about you,” he says, looking into the eyes of yours truly. One is tempted to believe the writer of The Great Railway Bazaar. And hopes to appear in one his books.