When I first read Somerset Maugham’s book ‘The Razor’s Edge’ almost a decade ago, I recall to have been quite affected by it. I was perhaps enchanted by the rich prose and the style of writing. Over these years I have read a lot of books but some characters have just managed to stay in my mind, like Larry in Maugham’s book. In this era when it so much easier to purchase a book online, I decided to test how much of a hold this book would have now and I must admit that this time, it has been an overwhelming experience to read the book for reasons beyond the literature aspects.
Maugham’s story is about a young American couple – Larry and Isabel on the verge of typing the nuptial knot. Larry gets called for service in the world war (one). On return, the boy is changed on witnessing death in close quarters. Thus begins Larry’s quest for truth on life and death that calls him to seek satisfactory answers in unimaginable ways. He travels for almost a decade in Europe spending time in coal mines of Germany to monasteries in Italy in the company of burly men, questionable women and devout monks before landing in India where he spends a significant amount of time in an Ashrama where he ultimately seems to find answers. In the meantime, Isabel breaks off with him and seeks a partner in another man who can provide her with the comforts she is born and brought up in. The story is straightforward and there is not an elaborate account of Larry’s movements and opinions but there are snippets that give an insight into the kind of answers he was seeking for, which reminded me of the efforts of yet another westerner around the same time looking for answers in colonial India, Paul Brunton.
In Brunton’s seminal autobiographical work ‘A Search in Secret India’ he talks about a similar expedition in this land. Armed with a doctorate degree, he arrives in India with a dogged determination in his quest for knowledge of the self. As a man of science, his initial introduction to fakirs and charlatans resign him to label their gimmicks as mere tricks and occasionally even contemplates on abandoning his search. He also meets many an intellectual person throughout the length and breadth of the sub-continent until he is pointed to Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai. Brunton spends months in the Ashrama where he garners a leap in his spiritual understanding which changes his life forever.
When I read Maugham’s account of Larry, I couldn’t help comparing the two. For one, Maugham warns us that he has changed the names of the people in his story to avoid any controversies of the people alive at that time. It is only reasonable for me to assume that the yogi “Shri Ganesha” referred to as the guru with whom Larry spent time with, is none other than Ramana Maharshi himself. There are ample evidences that support the surmise. The fact that Larry’s guru was initially residing in a hillock and then descended on the insistence of his disciples to the valley, his being clothed in only a loin cloth, the existence of a big temple which attracts devotees every year (The Shiva temple in Tiruvannamalai is of huge importance to Hindus which attracts lakhs of devotees especially during the holy day of Shivaratri) and the simple reason that the guru spoke more through silence than through sermons are some basis. It is also said that Maugham himself visited the ashrama sometime in the late 1930’s although he didn’t stay long. Whatever the case, it was quite exhilarating to read both books although one serves as an entertaining novel, while the other is a recounting of actual events in the most descriptive manner.
When I read Herman Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ years ago, I was not introduced to any works of spirituality then. I found it quite a breezy read until the last few pages where the character Siddhartha undergoes a transformation of sorts from a hippie life to one of self enlightenment. When I look back at the book, if I were given a choice of reading it for the sake of spirituality then perhaps I shall not give it another read, as stories such as this abound in India. What better than the original Siddhartha undergoing transformation to Buddha? Of course Hesse’s book has nothing to do with Maharshi but it was constantly in my mind as I read Maugham’s because Larry is identical to Siddhartha and Brunton because in all three cases, a guru is shown in bright light. All three central characters in the books indulge in excesses of life with a constant sense of detachment or perhaps its just that a western author’s view of oriental spirituality intrigues me.
A couple of years ago, I visited Tiruvannamalai and visited the Ashrama myself and would love to re-visit, for the atmosphere, if I may put it in one word, was charged. After all the years that these novels were written, I was quite astonished to see the number of westerners that still come to the Ashrama today and spend time there. The legacy lives on….
PS: All images are from opensource.