19 February 2012

Collected Short Stories: Vol 4

Pages: 576

Much of what Maugham wrote was always greatly influenced by the numerous travels he made. In the course of his momentous writing career, there were few countries and cities that he did not visit. Yet, by his own admission Maugham found it difficult to open up and talk to the many strangers he encountered during his journeys. At the core he was a shy and introverted man. This, Maugham believed was an unfortunate handicap for a writer. Especially because no one could have been more interested and fascinated than him by the oddities in the men and women he met. Yet, he seemed to have managed rather well, as these experiences provided a rich source material for his stories.

And of course he had his fecund imagination. Maugham has been quoted saying that he could spend an hour with a person and quite comfortably come up with a decent enough story. But not everyone became a subject-matter for the writer, and what Maugham looked for in people was a singularity of character or circumstance.
Though a naturalist, Maugham laid a fair emphasis on making his stories engaging and entertaining and had a natural instinct for drama. Hence all the stories you see in this Volume (as is the case with all his writings), have something extraordinary in them, one way or the other.

As always, Maugham gives a lush description of his characters' physical self, surroundings, background. Often what the characters reveal in the end is an entirely unknown and unlikely facet of their personality. It is this hidden possibility in people that interested Maugham the most. Like a pathologist in a chemical lab, he liked to mix substances in various kind of solutions and watch the reactions that could take place.

These were stories that Maugham wrote during his stay in the Far East (Singapore, Malaysia). The place was under the rule of the British and the period setting is somewhere before WW2. The land at this point is dotted with Englishmen, as consuls, planters, skippers, captain and others. Their lives in the colony, interaction with the local Malay populace forms the subject matter for many of the stories. The steam ships that made travel so much easier in later years and completely altered the Englishman's attitude to his stay in colonies (he saw it as a temporary abode now as opposed to earlier), was yet to come. The long and dry ship journey also forms a significant backdrop to the tales.

This was a time when once an Englishman left for a colony, he spent almost his entire lifetime there. Often he took in a Malay wife as well, though the relation had no legally binding, and many left the woman and children behind (albeit well-provided for) if they did think of going back to England.

The White officers had important positions in the native land with spacious houses and a retinue of servants to do their bidding. This was convenient as well as flattering to the Englishman, many of whom took the posting out of some constraint back home. Suddenly now, they had power and enough money. Where they would have to follow the strictest austerity to make ends meet in England, here they could
almost be counted as rich. Naturally many looked upon with nervousness the prospect of going back to their homes after the end of their tenures. Many just stayed back,since by then they grew so comfortable in the skin of the native atmosphere. In fact, many of them didn't even relish the idea of confronting another White man after all these years.

Every story in Vol 4 is a gem. 'The Outstation' about two White men, a superior and his deputy, and the corroding effect of their mutual hate, is especially brilliant. These two men staying and administering an alien land, far away from their own country, despise each other, as both are offended by the other's peculiar bearing. Warburton, the colonial officer, is widely considered a snob, because he adores aristocracy and replicates the same English habits in the colony. Yet, he is fair and reasonable in his duties, and very fond of the natives. He isn't very thrilled on being told that a White man would be joining him in the district. The anxiety turns into a severe irritation when he meets the man who would be his deputy. Cooper, having heard of Warburton's elitist bearings, is determined not to appear subservient in any way. Believing offence to be the best form of defence, Cooper gets outspoken and rude. Warburton is positively shocked and offended by his junior's words but is keen to appear fair and dignified at all times. Their hatred grows with time with each being consumed with a gnawing anger for the other. Maugham achieves great narrative constancy, and the story is a marvel in character build up.

There's a pattern that starts to emerge with the stories. Just when things appear all hunky dory - and Maugham sadistically builds up an enviable image of felicity - a change in circumstance occurs that upsets the original status quo. It initially causes irritation and finally gives way to a deep seated resentment. From there on things quickly begin to spiral downwards. Repressed anger and despair finally end in a shocking catastrophe.

Appearance v/s reality is also another recurring theme in Maugham's stories. Things are never as they seem, and appearance and bearing often belie a dark, complex and unexpected side. ('Red', 'The Letter')

The other important theme is the impermanence and doomed nature of love and marriage. Infidelity is a running theme in most of the stories. (A Casual Affair, Neil Mac Adam, Episode, A Woman Of Fifty, The Letter, The Back Of The Beyond.)

Many of the stories point to the inherent confusion among humans, where situations are strangely always at odds, This makes men and women fickle, impulsive, and drives them to act in mysterious ways. This is true in Maugham's fiction, as much as it is the case in real life. One wonders if this is the greatest tragedy God inflicted on man where he would never get what he truly desired, and if at all he got it, he would stop desiring the very same thing.

As always, Maugham writes with tremendous skill and heart. The descriptions are slightly more lavish, given that the book is a travelogue of sorts. There are some elegant passages about setting and nature. But Maugham's greatest strength as a writer remains his ability to be lucid, and stick to his point without ever rambling. Every line he writes adds to the cumulative power and impact of these unforgettable stories.

17 February 2012

The Dutch Treasure Trove

Renee Ridgway recently unveiled an archival find, a 17th century book on medicinal plants created by the then Dutch governor in Cochin. The event, held at David Hall, Fort Kochi aimed at looking at the fascinating impressions the Dutch left behind

In the 17th century, when the Dutch came to Cochin for trade purposes, and eventually became its rulers, an interesting episode took place.

The then Dutch governor Hendrik van Reede undertook an unexpected and novel project. Probably impressed with the lush verdure around, he grew interested in medicinal plants and collaborated with the local Keralite doctors, botanists, translators and artists to bring out a book on the findings. People were sent far and wide across the state to gather plants. Local doctors would then assess their medicinal properties, after which drawings would be made in water colours. The King of Cochin also helped him in this endevour. It was between 1678-1693 that this 12-volume work, illustrating as many as 700 indigenous plants, was published in Amsterdam.

(Dutch governor to Cochin, Hendrik van Reede)

This is undoubtedly a fascinating piece of archival history. And it is not surprising that 350 years later it should have caught the attention of visual artist Renee Ridgway, a keen student of history. Though a proud American in every sense, Renee was always interested in Dutch colonial history “I grew up in a Dutch colony in the US. Also, it also has something to do with my mixed ancestry,” she says, as we sit for a chat at David Hall on a hot, sweltering day.

She went to Netherlands for her studies, which further helped her understand the Dutch culture and history some more. Some time later Renee was battling with her migraines and sinus problem. No treatment seemed to be working. This is when someone suggested an ayurvedic doctor, Kochi-based Thomas Punnen to her, who was then in Netherlands. She was cured, and this instilled in her tremendous faith about the line of treatment. This reference somehow got her acquainted with Hortus Malabaricus, ‘the book’ that was compiled in the 17th century.

Her passion for history, her faith in traditional Indian medicine, and love for nature (“I worked in a flower shop in Netherlands”)all came together, and Renee decided to get to the heart of the matter. “I had come to India before, but never to Kochi. I knew there was a Dutch settlement here, and it was while I was staying at the Kashi Art Residency at Fort Kochi in 2007, that I became determined to find more about it. David Hall, that has now become a hub for art and food events, was in ruins then," she says. Ironically, this Dutch heritage building is where the entire project was undertaken, says Renee. “There’s good evidence that the project was carried out at David Hall. Where else could it have been?” she says. And now this is the venue for the unveiling of Renee’s own project on Hortus Malabaricus that she along with her filmmaker-friend Rick van Amersfoort undertook.

(A copy of the book, Hortus Malabaricus)

The launch of the book, and an extensive discussion held between Feb 15-22 aims to focus on the cultural exchange that has occurred over the past 350 years on the Mallabar Coast between the Dutch and the local population.

The research also allowed Renee to delve deeper into the Dutch social ethos. "The average Dutch person is a very business-oriented person. Unlike the British or Portuguese, the Dutch did not have any emotional ties with the colonies they ruled. Neither did they aspire to propagate their religion. All they were interested in was trade. They came to Cochin for the spices," she says.

(an illustration from Hortus Malabaricus)

So what could have prompted the then Dutch governor to come up with the project?Renee is reluctant to answer, simply because she would like one to draw inferences from the vast footage of documentary she has gathered. She relents, "I think there were a couple of things. He could have been genuinely interested in the field of plants and medicine. He also found the local population very fit, and perhaps wanted to know how. But the real reason appears to be that he wanted the Dutch soldiers to be healthy, and traditional, local medicines would work out cheaper than procuring it all the way from Netherlands," she says.

The book was more recently translated in English, and is now more accessible to people. “The stunning thing is that the contents of the book have been in circulation one way or the other," she says.