A Visit from Somerset Maugham
Willie Chandran asked his father one day, "Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me."
His father said without joy, "You were named after a great English writer. I am sure you have seen his books about the house."
"But I haven't read them. Did you admire him so much?"
"I am not sure. Listen, and make up your own mind."
And this was the story Willie Chandran's father began to tell. It took a long time. The story changed as Willie grew up. Things were added, and by the time Willie left India to go to England this was the story he had heard.
The writer (Willie Chandran's father said) came to India to get material for a novel about spirituality. This was in the 1930s. The principal of the maharaja's college brought him to me. I was doing penance for something I had done, and I was living as a mendicant in the outer courtyard of the big temple. It was a very public place, and that was why I had chosen it. My enemies among the maharaja's officials were hounding me, and I felt safer there in the temple courtyard, with the crowds coming and going, than in my office. I was in a state of nerves because of this persecution, and to calm myself I had also taken a vow of silence. This had won me a certain amount of local respect, even renown. People would come to look at me being silent and some would bring me gifts. The state authorities had to respect my vow, and my first thought when I saw the principal with the little old white fellow was that it was a plot to make me talk. This made me very obstinate. People knew that something was afoot and they stood around to watch the encounter. I knew they were on my side. I didn't say anything. The principal and the writer did all the talking. They talked about me and they looked at me while they talked, and I sat and looked through them like someone deaf and blind, and the crowd looked at all three of us.
That was how it began. I said nothing to the great man. It's hard to credit now, but I don't believe I had heard about him when I first saw him. The English literature I knew about was Browning and Shelley and people like that, whom I had studied at the university, for the year or so I was there, before I foolishly gave up English education in response to the mahatma's call, and unfitted myself for life, while watching my friends and enemies growing in prosperity and regard. That, though, is something else. I will tell you about it some other time.
Now I want to go back to the writer. You must believe that I had said nothing to him at all. But then, perhaps eighteen months later, in the travel book the writer brought out there were two or three pages about me. There was a lot more about the temple and the crowds and the clothes they were wearing, and the gifts of coconut and flour and rice they had brought, and the afternoon light on the old stones of the courtyard. Everything the maharaja's headmaster had told him was there, and a few other things besides. Clearly the headmaster had tried to win the admiration of the writer by saying very good things about my various vows of denial. There were also a few lines, perhaps a whole paragraph, describing--in the way he had described the stones and the afternoon light--the serenity and smoothness of my skin.
That was how I became famous. Not in India, where there is a lot of jealousy, but abroad. And the jealousy turned to rage when the writer's famous novel came out during the war, and foreign critics began to see in me the spiritual source of The Razor's Edge.
My persecution stopped. The writer--to the general surprise, an anti-imperialist--had, in his first Indian book, the book of travel notes, written flatteringly of the maharaja and his state and his officials, including the principal of the college. So the attitude of everybody changed. They pretended to see me as the writer had seen me: the man of high caste, high in the maharaja's revenue service, from a line of people who had performed sacred rituals for the ruler, turning his back on a glittering career, and living as a mendicant on the alms of the poorest of the poor.
Excerpted from Half a Life by V. S. Naipaul Copyright 2001 by V. S. Naipaul. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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