The ennui of a travel writer in Calcutta is the catalyst for a strange tale of obsession, betrayal and exploitation. Jerry Delfont has come to a moment of reckoning in his career as he considers his "dead hand", writer's block, admitting he has been "pretending to be a writer when I was only indulging myself as a tourist". Salvation arrives in the form of a letter from a wealthy woman, Merrill Unger, who appeals to Delfont to help her solve the mystery of a dead child, to shed light on an outrageous story told by her son's friend, Rajat. Delfont reads the letter, "amused by its presumption", but, with few demands on his time, he agrees to meet Mrs. Unger, who is far more formidable in person than he has imagined. A philanthropist who decries the sainted Mother Theresa for false humility, Mrs. Unger quietly runs an orphanage and is involved with many humanitarian works besides the business that has brought her to Calcutta.
Contrary to his assumptions, Mrs. Unger is devastatingly beautiful, powerful in a way he has never encountered before in a relationship. At this precarious time in the writer's life, the attention of this woman is a balm to the soul of a man doubting his viability in the world. Slowly introduced to Mrs. Unger's environment, which includes her devotion to the goddess Kali, Delfont falls into an unexpected but welcome state, impatiently anticipating the next contretemps with the American philanthropist he has begun to view as a visionary, a saintly, complicated woman who introduces him to the ecstasy of tantric sex. Delhunt nearly forgets his mission to learn more about the dead child in the hotel room in his urgency to be near Mrs. Unger.
Theroux's Calcutta teems with humanity, the deprived and the desperate, a rigid class system and the scars of poverty: "India has a market economy... there are no suitors, only customers." Mrs. Unger seems an extraordinary person to the once-cynical writer, who is daily more entranced by her exotic seduction. But, as the circumstances around the child's dead body fall into place, Delhunt's faith in human nature is challenged, India exposed in all its moral ambiguities. Theroux throws in an extra twist when his protagonist is introduced to author Paul Theroux, also seeking information on the mysterious Mrs. Unger, a curious conceit in a place where nothing is what it seems. As Mrs. Unger honors the goddess Kali, so does Delhunt worship at the altar of obsession, slow to wake from his hedonistic haze and a reality he cannot ignore. Luan Gaines/2010.