I saw the movie based on Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel years ago and loved it. The actors were first-rate, the story was gorgeous, the scenery exotic and I left the cinema feeling happy with the world. When I came across the book I was hoping for a similar experience.
The book’s plot was entertaining, but much uglier than the movie’s, and it didn’t leave me feeling full of joy.
The story starts with an old duck*, Muriel Donnelly, making the English newspapers after she fell in the street, went to hospital and was left untended for two days. What the newspapers didn’t report was that Muriel wouldn’t allow any “darkies” to touch her. The doctor interviewed to answer the newspaper’s claims was an Indian, Dr Ravi Kapoor. Ravi was married to an English woman, whose father, Norman, a selfish, sexist, randy old goat, had recently moved in with Ravi and his wife and was driving Ravi bonkers.
Other retirees are introduced and all of them have a different story, but they are all in the same position, in that they are living in England without enough money or companionship to enjoy their retirement. Most of the elderly characters are more or less neglected by their families.
Ravi’s cousin Sonny had the bright idea of turning a run-down guest house in his home town of Bangalore in India into the first of a chain of retirement homes, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Ravi was mad-keen to be involved in the project, mostly because he planned to send his father-in-law to India to live in the hotel.
The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel attracted quite a few English retirees, one married couple and a number of elderly women, along with Norman and Muriel Donnelly. They all settle in (more or less) to life in India.
The book is written from the point of view of the English expats. The contrast between the English retirees, (who in England, are quite poor) and the Indian people who are living in true poverty (homeless, begging, scavenging for food), is shown, although glossed over in that the English retirees’ stories take precedence every time. The English characters are all racist to some degree, from Muriel Donnelly’s atrocious behaviour in hospital, to a younger character who chases exotic religions, looking for a sense of fulfillment which she never attains.
Most of the characters, particularly the elderly occupants of the retirement home, are nostalgic for a world which is in the past. This resonated with me and I suspect will more and more as I grow older.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a black comedy. All of the characters are flawed. Some are funny, some are endearing and some are the kind of people you would avoid if you came across them in real life. The funny sections in this book are often at the expense of some one else’s dignity, and in many cases, India’s.
The movie was a kinder, sweeter story than the book. I recommend the movie over the book.
*Old duck is a term of endearment. I am nearly one myself.