Friday, 14 July 2017

Book of the Month: The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel (Deborah Moggach)

Deborah Moggach is a prolific British novelist who has published seventeen novels. Her 2004 novel, The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was made into a film a few years ago.

I haven’t seen the film and the only reason I picked up the novel from the local library was because I was looking for some light entertainment after finishing Howard Jacobson’s collection of articles in The Independent, published under the title Whatever It Is , I Don’t Like It. I liked Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It a lot, and found it very funny, too; but, at the same time it was “heavy” entertainment (I don’t know a better way of putting it).

I was looking to read something which wouldn’t tax my brain cells, something I could read without really having to take in the nuances (because there are no nuances), without the need to pay much attention to the plot (because there is either no plot or it is not incidental), and the sentences flowed easily enough without being too clever.

The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel seemed to fulfil the requirements. The blurb described it as an “addictive comedy”, “a glorious romp”, and “warm, wise and funny”. I was a bit concerned that one review, according to the novel’s blurb, found it “deeply poignant”; however, since that review was from Daily Mail, I thought I could safely ignore it. On an impulse I borrowed another Moggach novel, The Heartbreak Hotel, which, according to the blurb was all the things The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel was, and some more.

Did The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel live up to my expectations? Well, yes, although, as mentioned above, the bar was not exactly set high in this instance.

The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel tells the story of a bunch of old biddies from different parts of the UK who are shipped off to an Old People’s Home in Bangalore, India, except that the chancers who have cooked up this scheme are calling it the eponymous hotel so that the old codgers can deceive themselves that they are on some sort of extended, indefinite even, vacation, and not a retirement home. The brains behind this scheme are an Indian doctor named Ravi Kapoor, a consultant in the increasingly overstretched NHS (no stereotype here) and his cousin, Sonny, a wheeler-dealer businessman from Bangalore who has his fingers in more pies than Dawn French can eat in a whole year. Kapoor has migrated to England because he hates India. Why does he hate India? Because India suffocates him. He is now a doctor in the NHS. During the day he takes abuse from the patients who don’t want to be treated by a darkie, and in the evenings he listens to Mozart. He is married to Pauline who works at a travel agent, and hates his father-in-law, who is more randy than a Billy goat and has been kicked out of every possible retirement home in the South of England because of lecherous behaviour which shows no signs of diminishing despite the advancing years. The father-in-law, Norman, is camping in Kapoor’s house and is making his life a misery. So Kapoor in the company of his enterprising cousin (which is one way of describing him), Sonny, opens a retirement home in Bangalore in a ramshackle bungalow owned by a Zoroastrian and his chiropodist wife who is impossible to please. In due course the “exotic hotel” is full of British geriatrics, who, for a variety of reasons, have decided that Bangalore, India, is where they want to spend their last days.  It is a diverse collection. There is Norman the lecher; the obligatory bigot (who, I am pleased to inform, is slowly won over by India’s charms); an over-the-top couple that gets on your nerves five minutes before you have met them; a woman who—would you believe it?—was born in Bangalore in the days of the Raj and had visited the Merigold Hotel—because it was a school—every day till the age of eight when her parents cruelly uprooted and sent her to a boarding school in England (which must have done something right because the woman became a successful BBC producer); and a genteel, middle class lady called Evelyn, whose children would rather send her to India than find her a decent retirement home in England (with its enchanting smells of boiled cabbage and stale urine).  As the story progresses (narrated mainly through the eyes of Evelyn) there are the expected twists, coincidences, reunions, people falling in and out of love, and—am I forgetting anything?— unexpected deaths (responsible, I guess, for the poignancy detected by a critic).

Moggach leaves nothing to chance, and packs the novel with clichés about India. The beggars, the crowds, the call centres and the oh-so-well-behaved young men and women who work there and make futile attempts to pass themselves off as Bobs and Marys from Enfield to their British customers, the unfathomable serenity and passivity of Hinduism that enables people to lead their terrible lives without complaining, the mysticism, the exoticism of India—you name it and Moggach has supplied it in the novel. The portrayal of India, or, of one of its sprawling metropolises to be exact, is, despite all the clichés, compassionate. One does not expect icy objectivity in novels such as this, but neither does, to her credit, Moggach allow the novel to swoon in saccharine emotions. Well, just a bit, not too much.

On her official website Moggach says that The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel came out of her reflections on getting older, about what is going to happen to us all. She wanted to explore questions of race and mortality but also wanted it to be a comedy of manners between East and West. The novel doesn’t offer any insight into how Indians view mortality, unless the sayings from various Hindu and Buddhist sacred books quoted at the beginning of each chapter (and which have no connection with the contents of the chapters) are supposed to provide the reader with insight into the Hindu way of understanding mortality. What the reader gets is the British approach to mortality (denial, self-pity, bitterness), only that these people are gathered in a crumbling old bungalow in Bangalore instead os a miserable retirement home in Dulwich.

I give The Best Exotic Merigold Hotel A minus for vocabulary, B + for efforts, and C minus for entertainment.