The New York Times: Somerset Maugham’s Swami

Letter from India. By David Shaftel July 22 2010.

Books about Westerners seeking enlightenment in India seem to be everywhere these days, including in India itself. In Mumbai, Elizabeth Gilbert’s juggernaut of a memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” is prominently displayed in street corner bookstalls and hotel bookstores. Bootlegged copies are hawked to tourists stuck in traffic, and photographs of Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert in the forthcoming film version, have crept into the papers next to those of Bollywood stars.

To critics, “Eat, Pray, Love,” which has sold more than six million copies in the United States, is a symbol of the commodification of Eastern spirituality, offering a breezy primer on the kind of self-examination that is said to take a lifetime, sandwiched between narratives of more earthly ­pleasures. But Gilbert is hardly the first writer to mass-market the ashram experience. W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Razor’s Edge,” published in 1944, sold over three million copies and spent almost a year on the best-seller list. In his introduction to “The Skeptical Romancer,” a recent collection of Maugham’s travel writings, Pico Iyer suggested that “The Razor’s Edge,” about a young American who (like Gilbert) breaks off a relationship to seek wisdom in the East, was the prototypical hippie novel. Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian guru who toured the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, inscribed a copy of his “Autobiography of a Yogi” (1946) to Maugham, thanking him for “spreading the seed of India’s teachings.”

In “The Razor’s Edge,” a young American named Larry Darrell, traumatized by the death of a comrade in World War I, abandons conventional life with the materialistic but practical Isabel Bradley in favor of traveling the world studying philosophy and religion and, as he puts it, loafing. Along the way, he is gripped by “an intense conviction that India had something to give me that I had to have” and finds peace at the ashram of Sri Ganesha, a Hindu saint. (The book’s title is taken from the Upanishads.)

Larry’s experience is based closely on Maugham’s own visit to an ashram in 1938, undertaken to explore the “spiritual side of life that had always intrigued and at the same time eluded him,” as Selina Hastings puts it in her new biography, “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.” After interviewing a number of holy men (and declaring it “irksome to listen interminably to the same statements” repeated, “like parrots”), he arrived at the ashram of the prominent sage Sri Ramana Maharshi, in the sleepy south Indian temple town of Tiruvannamalai, in the modern state of Tamil Nadu. In his 1944 essay “The Saint,” Maugham describes a mostly silent meeting with the swami, who was “of a dark honey color with close-cropped white hair and a close-cropped white beard” and wore only a loincloth. When Maugham said he felt sick and weak, Sri Ramana replied, “Silence is also conversation.” This and many of the details of his visit found their way into “The Razor’s Edge.”

Gilbert didn’t identify the ashram she wrote about, though the information is easily found online. (When I visited the ashram, a cloistered compound with uniformed guards on the outskirts of the outskirts of Mumbai, a temple representative declined to be interviewed for this article; another employee confirmed I was in the right place.) But Maugham, writing in the age before mass tourism, seemed less concerned with Sri Ramana’s being overrun. In his essay “India,” he describes meeting a Western sadhu, or holy man, when he arrived, a novelty on his travels. Major A. W. Chadwick was a retired British army officer who, like Larry Darrell, was seeking enlightenment and was prepared to stay at the ashram “till this happened or till the yogi died.”

Sri Ramana Maharshi, 1949.Credit – Eliot Elisofon/Time & Life Pictures — Getty Images

These days, the jungle surrounding the ashram has given way to semi-urban sprawl. On a recent visit, the place was humming with quiet activity, as Indians and Westerners alike ambled in and out to chant, meditate, pray before the tomb of Sri Ramana, who died in 1950, or just to chat or nap in the courtyard. About 20 percent of the boarders in the roughly 100 double rooms are foreigners, and still more are “upcountry people” from north India, said V. S. Mani, a grandnephew of Sri Ramana and a trustee of the ashram. (There are also several Facebook pages devoted to the guru, with thousands of friends.) Meals are served in a communal dining hall, where Tamil curries are eaten off a banana leaf on the floor, with your hands.

John Maynard, the ashram’s English archivist and a devotee since the 1970s, said he liked the simplicity of the Sri Ramana ashram. “They are not asking people to donate any money or do volunteer work,” he told me. “They’re not trying to sell you something or enhance your sex life, as some gurus would.”

Though the Sri Ramana ashram has a reputation for solemnity, Tiruvannamalai — home to one of the biggest Hindu temples in South India as well as the sacred mountain Arunachala — is something of a tourist trap for seekers who reckon they can find some kind of guru there, said David Godman, the author of several books on Sri Ramana, who lives near the ashram. Nor is Sri Ramana’s the only ashram in town. There are several of varying credibility, said Godman, some headed by charlatans or “poster gurus,” whose faces are plastered everywhere.

At Sri Ramana’s ashram, Maugham is long since forgotten. There is no landmark to commemorate his visit nor is “The Razor’s Edge” sold in the well-stocked bookstore. The store does carry “A Search in Secret India” (1934), the Englishman Paul Brunton’s account of his search for a guru, which did far more to establish Sri Ramana’s reputation in the West, according to Godman. (Brunton himself later became the subject of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s disenchanted 1993 memoir “My Father’s Guru.”) Back then, “only people in the know could have identified Maugham’s fictional guru as Sri Ramana,” Godman said.

But Maugham remained a beloved figure in India even as his reputation in the West began to suffer. “Maugham was read with somewhat surprising affection and attention about a generation ago by people who liked what they felt was his ‘cosmopolitan’ rather than specifically ‘British’ point of view,” Christel Devadawson, who teaches English at the University of Delhi, said in an e-mail message. Her colleague Harish Trivedi remembers reading a “fairly frothy” Maugham story called “The Luncheon.” “I recall our teacher bluffing his way through the word ‘asparagus,’ for neither he nor we had ever eaten or even seen it,” he said via e-mail.

At the ashram, the only person I met with vivid memories of “The Razor’s Edge” was K. V. Subrahmon, 77, a devotee from Tamil Nadu who said he had come there recently “to leave my body.” Bare-chested and wearing a dhoti, with long white hair and a beard, Subrahmon looked as though he stepped off the set of the 1946 film version starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. He said he had been a Gandhian and “a bit of a Christian,” before becoming a devotee of Sri Ramana. At university, when reading Maugham was de rigueur, he developed a reputation as an idealist and a seeker. “Everyone used to call me ‘Larry’ in those days,” he said.

Subrahmon said the novel’s bits on Hinduism were “very well written for a layman, especially a Westerner.” But in the end, the earthier and more universal parts of the story endured for him. “Larry should not have left Isabel in suspense,” he told me. “I thought he should get in or get out. One shouldn’t take a girl’s love and emotions for granted.”

David Shaftel has written about books for The New York Times and The Financial Times.

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