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…
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