Paul Theroux and the Gujarati chemist in a ghost town in the American South


article-0-121EF32A000005DC-944_634x463It’s probably entirely unsurprising that Paul Theroux found a Gujarati chemist in Allendale, the decrepit “vivid failure” of a town that he visited in the American Deep South. (Click here for his Smithsonian essay.)

He quotes a 1999 story in the New York Times magazine by Tunku Varadarajan, which said that more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States are owned by people of Indian origin. The statistic was supplied by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and Mr Theroux says it’s even greater now. More about that later, but first to Allendale’s busy Gujarati shopkeeper, Suresh Patel.

Why had he left Broach two years ago for this dump, a town that Mr Theroux describes as looking “haunted…the ghost town on the ghost highway”. Mr Patel’s filling station and convenience store is apparently decrepit enough to match, but it was busy when Mr Theroux stopped to buy gas.

That’s why Mr Patel came. “My cousin call me. He say, ‘Come. Good business’,” the former chemist tells Mr Theroux.

It was good because it was so bad. Theroux, widely-travelled of course, remembers the Indian shopkeepers he knew in East and Central Africa. Many of them claimed Broach as their ancestral home, he recalls and their stores were pretty similar to Mr Patel’s in Allendale, with its “shelves of food and beer and cheap clothes and candy and household goods, the stern hand-lettered sign, No Credit, the same whiff of incense and curry.”

But the sense of a watchful, vulture-like wait for inevitable death is heightened by this further bit of intelligence: “All the convenience stores, the three gas stations and the one motel in small, unpromising Allendale were each owned by Indians from India. The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the somnolence hanging over the town like a blight — and even the intense sunshine was like a sinister aspect of that same blight — all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe.”