30 January 2013

Maugham and India

Maugham was a great traveller, who considered journeying as indispensable to his career as an author. Most of his inspiration came to him from his travels and Maugham ended up visiting a great many countries in course of his life. The local flavour delighted him and gave him material to write. Like 'Don Fernando', which he wrote on his travels to Spain. The entire book covers Maugham's inimitable observation on Spanish culture, art and literature and makes for a fascinating read.

His travels to China and Malay, which were British colonies then, threw up interesting settings and cross-cultural domestic scenarios that made for some unforgettable stories.

It's a pity that Maugham did not write a book on India and explore the extraordinarily lush social and political time of the British Raj. Though E. M Forster wrote a great book in 'Passage To India',  there is no doubt that pre-independence India would have laid before Maugham a fascinating array of themes that he would have absolutely loved to work with. Unfortunately for him and his readers, for the longest time, Maugham held the regretful presumption that Rudyard Kipling had already written in his numerous books all that had to be said about India. This of course was not true, and though Kipling is certainly well- known among the reading class in India, his works aren't considered the most popular or estimable. 

Maugham visited India in the winter months of 1938 and immediately realised it was a mistake not to come here early.  In a letter sent to E. M. Foster from Calcutta, Maugham is said to have written, 
"(I) only regret that the shadow of Kipling lurking over the country in my imagination prevented me from coming twenty years ago." (source: Selina Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham). 
He came down South, visited Cochin and The Lotus Club, started by Gertrude Bristow, wife of Robert Bristow, among other places. Robert Bistow was a chief engineer who at that time was working on building a massive port in the city. The story is that Gertrude wasn't given membership to the Cochin Club, an exclusive all-White club where aristocrats hobnobbed. That prompted the Bristows to build their own club, which they did with the help of the King of Cochin. This was also the country's first anti-racial club which was open to Indians. Maugham visited this club, and also the Trivandrum library. He was joined on this trip by well-known lawyer and administrator C P Ramaswamy Iyer. At this time, CP had been law minister of the executive council of the Viceroy Of India from 1931 to 1936 and when Maugham met him he was the Diwan of Travancore. Both became friends during this trip with Maugham supplying a eulogy for the book, C. P. by his contemporaries.

Maugham wrote of CP, "He had the geniality of the politician who for years has gone out of his way to be cordial with everyone he meets. He talked very good English, fluently, with a copious choice of words, and he put what he had to say plainly, and with logical sequence. He had a resonant voice and an easy manner. He did not agree with a good deal that I said and corrected me with decision, but with courtesy that took it for granted I was too intelligent to be affronted by contradiction."
Maugham e
ven created a character called Ramasamy Iyer in his novel, 'The Narrow Corner.'
CP (centre) British officials

T'puram library

Maugham was also pleased to see so many of his books at the Trivandrum library. 
In the course of his three-month sojourn to India, he also made a trip to Ramanasramam in Madras. The journey was a tiring one and when Maugham met Ramana Maharshi, the saint, the author fainted. This accident, wrote Maugham, was purely due to the fact that he was fatigued and moreover had a tendency to faint. But the version from the worshipers present was different, and they immediately announced that the famous English writer on seeing the Maharshi had gone into the trance-like state of samadhi. Maugham laughed the episode off in his essay The Saint that he wrote years later. He wasn't critical of India or this experience but being a rationalist to the core, his tone of bemusement is evident in the narration.

When Maugham wrote The Razor's Edge, he recreated this setting in India as the place where his character, Larry goes on a spiritual journey.  Some have conjectured that Larry's character, who Maugham said was a real-life person for whom he had immense adoration and respect, was someone the author met at the ashram. This has no evidence, and it is in fact erroneous to even call The Razor's Edge as Maugham's Indian novel.  Some have interestingly compared it to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray And Love where the author travels to an ashram in India.  Only a small part of The Razor's Edge qualifies for this juxtaposition. 

Maugham visited Bombay (now Mumbai) and had a brief meeting with none other than the young Congress leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become the first prime minister of India. This fact is revealed through Nehru's letters that he wrote to his daughter Indira (Gandhi). While Maugham's biographers like Selina Hastings have done an adequate job of covering Maugham's India visit, not one of them has mentioned this particular meeting between Maugham and Nehru. 

Up North, Maugham did not miss seeing the great Taj Mahal at Agra and was overcome by its beauty. In his book, The Writer's Notebook which carries the many scribbles he made as a writer, he says, "I can understand that when people say that something takes their breath away, it is not an idle metaphor. I really did feel shortness of breath."

Maugham was treated with a great deal of courtesy by all the royals he visited. Every effort was made to make his stay enjoyable.  There's one story of Maugham inquiring about R. K. Narayan - a new Indian writer then, who later went on to become a legendary one. Narayan's novels were being read in England, and Maugham had been impressed by one of his books called The English Teacher.  Maugham expressed a wish to see Narayan when he went to Mysore, but astonishingly, no local person knew that such a writer existed in their midst.  Maugham later wrote a glowing letter to R K Narayan, that the latter's biographer, Ranga Rao quotes, "Your story (The English Teacher) is charming and moving and curious, but what I think chiefly delighted me was the description of the home life with all the telling details that you have given. You cannot imagine how fascinating that is to the European reader. The portrait of Susila is very graceful and touching, and very, very human."

It's not surprising that Maugham found so much to like about  The English Teacher. The story is about a newly-wed couple, their blissful early years, and a bitter-sweet lover's tiff that brings them even closer. But the union is not to be, as Susila is struck by illness and dies. Maugham, who has always been intrigued by domestic relationships of man and woman, would have undoubtedly found much to delight in Nayaran's novel. 

Considering Maugham's fascination for India, it is a dear loss to us that he could not return to the country to write a full-fledged novel. Maugham of course had plans to come back. However, second world war struck and the plans had to be abandoned.


avinash angal said...

thanks!delighted to read something
about maugham,one my most favourite

Abhyudaya Shrivastava said...

It was an interesting post. Now I wanna know more about Maugham.

VED from Victoria Institutions said...

QUOTE: Maugham wrote hardly anything on India. This is a dear loss for sure. END of QUOTE

However, Katherine Mayo did write a quite candid book on the Indian peninsula with the title: Mother India. It was rubbished by the likes of Gandhi &c.

Shalet Jimmy said...

Never read Maugham. But going to read soon.