In later life the English writer W. Somerset Maugham developed an interest in Indian spirituality. He visited India in 1938, and in Madras was taken to an ashram to meet a man who, born Venkataraman, had retreated to a life of silence, self-mortification, and prayer, and was now known simply as the Maharshi.
While waiting for his audience, Maugham fainted, perhaps because of the heat. When he came to, he found he could not speak (it must be mentioned that Maugham was a lifelong stammerer). The Maharshi comforted him by pronouncing that “silence also is conversation.”
News of the fainting fit, according to Maugham, soon spread across India: through the power of the Maharshi, it was said, the pilgrim had been translated into the realm of the infinite. Though Maugham had no recollection of visiting the infinite, the event left its mark on him: he describes it in A Writer’s Notebook (1949) and again in Points of View (1958); he also works it into The Razor’s Edge (1944), the novel that made his name in the United States.
The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American who, having prepared himself by acquiring a deep tan and donning Indian garb, visits the guru Shri Ganesha and at his hands has an ecstatic spiritual experience, “an experience of the same order as the mystics have had all over the world through all the centuries.” With Shri Ganesha’s blessing, this proto-hippie returns to Illinois, where he plans to practice “calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness and continence” while driving a taxi. “It’s a mistake to think that those holy men of India lead useless lives,” he says. “They are a shining light in the darkness.”
The story of the happy symbiosis between Venkataraman the holy man and Maugham the writer, Venkataraman providing Maugham with a marketable version of Indian spirituality, Maugham providing Venkataraman with publicity and tourist business, forms the starting point for V.S. Naipaul’s new novel Half a Life.
Was the historical Venkataraman, dispenser of gnomic wisdom, a fake? This is not what concerns Naipaul here. Fasting, celibacy, silence: Why do people make self-denial their central religious practice, in India in particular, and what are the human consequences? In rewriting, in free fashion, the story of Somerset Maugham and the holy man, these become the questions Naipaul explores instead.
To understand the story, Naipaul suggests, we need to view Indian asceticism historically. Once upon a time Hindu temples supported an entire priestly caste. Then, as a result of foreign invasions, first Muslim, later British, the temples lost their revenues. The priests became trapped in a vicious cycle: poverty led to loss of energy and desire, which led to passivity, which led to deeper poverty. The caste was in terminal decline. Instead of quitting temple life, however, the caste came up with an ingenious transvaluation of values: not eating, and denial of the appetites in general, was propagated as admirable in itself, worthy of veneration and hence of tribute.
This is Naipaul’s briskly materialist account of how a Brahmin ethos of self-denial and fatalism, an ethos that scorned individual enterprise and hard work, gained the high ground in India. In Naipaul’s story, a nineteenth-century Brahmin named Chandran has the gumption to break out of the system. He saves his pennies, journeys to the nearest big town—the capital of one of the “independent” backwater states in British India—and gets a job as a clerk in the maharajah’s palace. His son continues the climb of the family through the ranks of the civil service. All seems well: the Chandrans have found a safe niche for themselves, and they no longer have to mortify their bodies either.
But the grandson (we are now in the 1930s) is a rebel of a kind. Rumors of Gandhi and his nationalist movement abound. The Mahatma calls for a boycott of universities; the grandson (henceforth called simply Chandran) responds by burning his Shelley and Hardy in the college yard (he does not like literature anyway). He waits for a storm to break over his head, but no one has noticed.
Gandhi proclaims that the caste system is wrong. How does a Brahmin fight the caste system? Answer: by marrying down. Chandran picks on an ugly, dark-skinned girl in his class belonging to a so-called backward caste—in everyday parlance, a “backward”—and pays court to her in clumsy fashion. In no time at all the girl, using lies and threats, has compelled him to make good on his promises.
In disgrace, Chandran is set to work in the maharajah’s tax office. There he indulges in surreptitious acts of what he tells himself is civil disobedience, though his true motives are idle and malicious. His mischief exposed, and about to be tried, he takes sanctuary in a temple, where he protects himself from what he chooses to call persecution by taking a vow of silence. His vow turns him into a local hero. People come to watch him being silent and to bring offerings.
It is into this hotbed of deceit and hypocrisy that the gullible Westerner Somerset Maugham treads. “Are you happy?” Maugham asks the holy man. Using pencil and pad, Chandran replies: “Within my silence I feel quite free. That is happiness.” What wisdom! thinks Maugham. The comedy is rich: the freedom Chandran enjoys is freedom from prosecution.
Maugham publishes a book, and Chandran is suddenly famous—famous for having been written about by a foreigner. Visitors from abroad follow in Maugham’s footsteps. To them Chandran recounts how he gave up a glittering career in the civil service for a life of prayer and self-sacrifice. Soon he comes to believe his own lies. Following the lead of his Brahmin ancestors, he has found a way of repudiating the world yet prospering. He sees no irony in this. Instead he is awed: a “higher power” must be guiding him, he thinks.
Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Chandran makes a living doing what he secretly finds easy: denying his appetites (though his appetites are not so exiguous that he cannot father two children on his “backward” wife). In Kafka’s story, despite the hunger artist’s protestations to the contrary, there is a certain heroism in self-starving, a minimal heroism befitting post-heroic times. In Chandran there is no heroism: it is genuine poverty of spirit that allows him to be content with so little.
In his first and most critical book about India, An Area of Darkness (1964), Naipaul describes Gandhi as a man deeply influenced by Christian ethics, capable, after twenty years in South Africa, of seeing India with the critical eye of an outsider, and in this sense “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” But India undid Gandhi, says Naipaul, turning him into a mahatma, an icon, so as to ignore his social message.
Chandran likes to think of himself as a follower of Gandhi. But, Naipaul suggests implicitly, the question Chandran is asking of himself is not the Gandhian “How shall I act?” but the Hindu “What shall I give up?” He prefers giving up because giving up costs him nothing.
In honor of his British patron, Chandran names his first-born William Somerset Chandran. Since young Willie comes from a mixed (mixed-caste) marriage, it is thought prudent to send him to a Christian school. Soon Willie longs to be a missionary and a Canadian like his teachers. In his English compositions he fantasizes himself as a regular Canadian boy with a “Mom” and a “Pop” and a car. His teachers reward him with high marks, but his father is hurt to find himself written out of his son’s life.
In due course, however, Willie finds out what the missionaries are really after: converts to Christianity, the destruction of heathen religion. Feeling fooled, he stops going to school.
Calling in old debts, Chandran writes to Maugham asking him to pull strings on the boy’s behalf. He gets a typewritten letter back: “Dear Chandran, It was very nice getting your letter. I have nice memories of the country, and it is nice hearing from Indian friends. Yours very sincerely…” Other foreign friends prove equally evasive. Then someone in the British House of Lords waves a wand and Willie, at the age of twenty, is whisked across the seas on a college scholarship.
The year is 1956. London is bursting at the seams with immigrants from the Caribbean. Before long race riots break out: young whites in mock Edwardian clothes roam the streets looking for blacks to beat up. Willie hides in his college rooms. Hiding out is not a new experience for him: it is what he does at home when there are caste riots.
What Willie learns about in London is, principally, sex. The girlfriend of a Jamaican fellow student takes pity on him and relieves him of his virginity. She then gives him a useful little cross-cultural lecture. Marriages in India are arranged, she says, so Indian men don’t think they need to satisfy a woman sexually. But things are different in England. He should try harder. Willie consults a paperback called The Physiology of Sex and learns that the average man can maintain an erection for ten or fifteen minutes. He refuses to read further.
“How did you learn about sex?” he asks his Jamaican friend. Sex is a brutal business, the friend replies; you have to start young. Willie is dismayed. In Jamaica boys practice by “fingering and then raping little girls.” How is he, coming from a culture where there is no such thing as seduction and no “art of sex,” going to find a girlfriend?
He plucks up the courage to approach a streetwalker. Their intercourse is joyless and humiliating: “Fuck like an Englishman,” the woman commands when he takes too long.
Chandran the charlatan sadhu and his son the inept lover: they might seem the stuff of comedy, but not in Naipaul’s hands. Naipaul is a master of English prose, and the prose of Half a Life is as clean and cold as a knife. The male Chandrans are defective human beings who leave the reader chilled rather than amused; the “backward” wife and Willie’s sister, who grows into a smug left-wing fellow traveler, are little better.
Both father and son believe they see through other people. But they detect lies and self-deception all around them only because they are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves. Their shrewdness of insight is grounded in nothing but a self-protective reflex of suspicion. Their rule of thumb is always to give the least charitable interpretation. Self-absorption, minginess of spirit, rather than inexperience, are at the root of Willie’s failures in love.
As for his father, a measure of his constitutional meanness is his response to books. As a student, he does not “understand” the courses he is taking, and in particular does not “understand” literature. The education he is subjected to, principally English literature taught by rote, is certainly irrelevant to his life. Nevertheless, there is in him a deep impulse not to understand, not to know. He is, strictly speaking, ineducable. His bonfire of the classics is not a healthily critical response to a deadening colonial education. It does not free him for another, better kind of education, for he has no idea of what a good education might be. In fact, he has no ideas at all.