W. Somerset Maugham: Adultery in the tropics.

709897One of the many inconveniences of real life is that it seldom gives you the complete story, wrote British writer Somerset Maugham in the story The Romantic Young Lady. Yet, out of an inconvenience such as this, or perhaps because of it, he created a marvelous oeuvre of short fiction. Maugham, a writer with many hats – novelist, playwright, literary critic, travel writer – wore them all with élan. Even those who have read none of his longer works (The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence), would, most likely, have read a short story or two.

Maugham’s skill as a writer came from his acute powers of observation. As a child he stammered and was teased for it. Shyness made of him a passive participant but an active spectator. He started writing short stories after his moderately successful first novel, Liza of Lambeth, written when he was a medical student in London, was published in 1897. These early works came out in the best literary magazines of the day, The Strand Magazine, Punch, The Pall Mall magazine, The Illustrated London News. However, it was only after the First World War – in which he served in France as an ambulance driver – that he wrote some of his finest tales.

Raffles Hotel – Singapore

In 1917, Maugham travelled to the Pacific Islands and the Far East, visiting the British colonies: India, Burma, Siam, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong. The good traveler has the gift of surprise, he wrote. Though his travel writing compares with that of Evelyn Waugh and Freya Stark, Maugham was always more interested in people than places. On a Chinese screen, his account of a journey up the Yangtze river in 1919, is replete with detailed pen pictures titled My Lady’s Parlour, Dinner Parties, The Nun, that were probably meant as preliminary notes for his stories. On his travels he interacted with the whole gamut of expats who ran the empire – bureaucrats, planters, company managers, army officers, missionaries – and built up a storehouse of raw material in the form of vignettes, anecdotes, sketches which later gave shape to some truly memorable pieces of short fiction, rich in period detail.

It was a time when the world was in a flux and the sun was gradually beginning to set on the Raj. In The Outstation, a character who lives on a remote administrative outpost in the Borneo jungle insists on dressing up for dinner every evening: ‘When a white man surrenders in the slightest degree to the influences that surround him he very soon loses his self- respect, and when he loses his self- respect you may be quite sure that the natives will soon cease to respect him.’ In Maugham’s writing it is hard to distinguish between reality and imagination; fact is sometimes barely disguised as fiction, and the usual caveat about characters being imaginary seems like the only invented part. Naturally, some of the stories created controversy and invited lawsuits. For instance, The Painted Veil, a novella set in Hong Kong, about an adulterous affair and its unusual aftermath, had to be revised twice to avoid hurting the sentiments of British folks living on the island. The stories Maugham wrote give us an insight into the class structure of colonial life, the attitudes of those who administered the colonies and were caught between two cultures. They capture the dilemmas of the rulers –isolation, boredom, homesickness – while telling us very little about the ruled.

708The colonial’s existence was lonely and monotonous. Driven by the conflicting needs, to cling on to what he had left while distancing himself from where he found himself, it took an emotional toll. The imperative to maintain cultural boundaries both within and without the world of the White Man is a frequently explored theme in the stories. Class, religion and sex were typical subjects. As was adultery. Notwithstanding the gin pahits served by the deferential houseboys on the bungalow’s verandah, against a backdrop of prahus sailing down the river that ran through the dark forest under a buttery yellow moon, there was, it seems, nothing for the English mem and the sahib to do in those remote rubber plantations – except have an affair. With whom? For her, it was usually a neighbor from the estate next door, always a fellow white man. The sahib, however, had no such qualms; he could, and often did, make the crossover by choosing a native Malay or Chinese woman as his mistress and even having half a dozen half -caste kids.

Maugham_retouchedWhile these yarns were clearly inspired by tidbits of salacious gossip, probably gathered from shamelessly eavesdropping at watering holes such as the bar at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, in Maugham’s deft hands they became stories, written in plain prose, with plots and twists, but about real people and all the subtle touches of irony that make up real life. Of this ilk are The Letter, Flotsam and Jetsam, Force of Circumstance, all considered Maugham classics.

What was the response? Well, Western critics who were getting accustomed to more cerebral stuff such as the new styles of short story writers like John Cheever, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, tended to look down their noses calling his writing a ‘tissue of clichés’. The public, however loved his work – probably for the same reason that the critics despised it. He was, reputedly, the highest paid author in the 1930s, outselling brilliant contemporaries like Joseph Conrad.

The Game’s Afoot: The London of Sherlock Holmes

sherlock-holmes-147255_1280Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has become so much a part of our lives that no one can deny he is practically a historical figure. Fans of SH would be shocked to hear that he might be… fictional.

In the same vein, so much has been said about Sherlock Holmes’s London that it would be presumptuous of me to claim that my take is new or different – it’s all been said, and said by the best writers. What I have done is write about what excites me the most and why.

Apart from the consulting detective himself, the “great wilderness that is London” is the omniscient presence in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock himself had a vast understanding of the city, apart from an intimate knowledge of its opium dens, the Opera House, Simpson’s and Pall Mall.

When Watson first returns to London, he calls it “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of Europe are irresistibly drained” Holmes disagrees, pointing out that the most dangerous alleys of London do not present a “more dreadful record of sin than the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

London was his canvas, his home and his turf. And what better backdrop do we need for the world’s most famous detective stories to unfold, twist and turn than London, where the weather enthusiastically pitches in to mirror the darkness that lies in the souls of men. Stormy, blustery windy nights, icy cold pavements echoing the footfalls of Holmes and Watson as they push their way through oily yellow fogs, clattering hansom cabs that bring the prospect of pure adventure to 221B Baker Street.

art_14When Holmes began his illustrious career in 1878, London was Dickensian – a constant jostling drama with chimney sweeps, dustmen, costermongers, ice barrow men, flower girls, footpads and Italian street singers rubbing shoulders with each other. The metropolis was slowly undergoing the metamorphosis into the great city it would become. Interestingly, Holmes’ love for disguise reflects these multiple characters that made up the texture of London.

One emerging trend in this Victorian England was the inter-mingling of different classes due to the surge of immigrants into the metropolis. 221B offers an interesting tableau in this regard. Holmes is clearly a member of the gentry, the son of an English country squire, Watson a member of the professional middles class, a doctor who also served in the army while Mrs. Hudson belongs to what they would call the lower middle classes. She is his landlady, not a housekeeper, keeps a maid and cook and also shows in his colourful clients.

Adding to this mélange are the Baker Street Irregulars — Holmes’ eyes and ears of the streets — homeless urchins who keep an ear to the ground and form the “Baker Street division of the detective police force”

The relationships are complex yet clearly defined. The close camaraderie between Holmes and Watson with the latter being his sounding board, biographer, friend and guide; Mrs. Hudson’s devotion to Holmes and his deep regard and affection for her (a closely guarded secret though!) and Holmes’ admiration for the tough, street-smart Irregulars whom he pays handsomely. Experts note that while Holmes admires their resourcefulness, the fact that he accepts their un-parented and homeless state reflects the general attitude to street urchins.

Baker_Street_Waterloo_Railway_platform_March_1906Moving on. We know that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft’s haunt, the Diogenes was on Pall Mall — which has always been the home of all the gentleman’s clubs that best exemplify the English sensibility, the Athenaeum, The Army and Navy Club, the United Services club, the Oxford and Cambridge club. The Diogenes was the club that housed the “most unsociable and unclubable” men in London. The number one rule was that there should be no talking and members could be invited to leave for coughing. It is here that we see Mycroft in — The Bruce Partington Plans (in the Stranger’s Room of course) and wonder if the club is a front for the Secret Service perhaps?

And finally Simpson’s in the Strand. Simpson’s opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house, The Grand Cigar Divan. It soon became known as the “home of chess”. The official website explains that the habit of wheeling large joints of meat on silver-domed trolleys to guests’ tables first began to avoid disturbing the progress of chess games — a practice Simpson’s still continues today. I was delighted to see that the official Simpson’s website proudly boasts of their famous patrons — Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone and Sherlock Holmes.

It was here that Holmes sat with Watson in The Illustrious Client watching the “rushing stream of life in the Strand.” (“She waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess greeting two rather leprous mendicants…. if your head is inclined to swell my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.”)

My London will always be the London of Sherlock Holmes where Watson would be shaken awake on a “bitterly cold night and frosty morning” to hear the immortal words: “Come Watson, come, the game’s afoot.” The London where Holmes and Watson clatter through the silent streets to Charing Cross Station, the figure of a workman faintly visible in the “opalescent reek.”

The magic begins…

(this was a guest post by Achala Srivatsa)

Sir_Arthur_Conan_Doyle_1890 Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KGStJ, DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was a British writer and physician, most noted for his fictional stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes, which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction. He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.

achala srivastava



Achala Srivatsa is a market researcher by profession who observes the madness of the world and occasionally musters up the energy to comment on it. Her love for all things Sherlockian started at the age of 9 when she read the Speckled Band and it continues today. 

KAFKA: A Cage in Search of a Bird

Franz_Kafka_from_National_Library_IsraelTo have an –esque after your name is so unusual that only one such name comes to mind. However, there’s nothing Kafkaesque about No 22 Golden Lane, a tiny row house- turned- into- a shop, in a colourful alley behind St Vitus’s Cathedral inside Prague Castle. What sets it apart from other souvenir shops, to its left and right, is that it was once the house of a woman named Ottilie. And what sets Ottilie (Ottla) apart from other women is that she had a brother named Franz. Franz Kafka.

The Kafkas were Jewish – a minority community in Bohemia in the late 19th – early 20th century. The fact that they spoke German (rather than Czech),  and that Franz had a rather ambiguous relationship with the Jewish faith, enhanced the sense of isolation that is a hallmark of  his writing. Kafka’s work, highly autobiographical in its themes, is frequently about The Other and the dehumanization of the Other – a reason why his stories presaged the horrors of the Holocaust. For example, In the Penal Colony  (written exactly one hundred years ago), the story, told from the point of view of a Traveler, is about a complicated torture machine, the Harrow, that kills the ‘guilty’ by engraving their sentence on their flesh with a metal stylus.

Franz, born on July 3, 1883, was the eldest – and the only surviving son –among six children, Ottla being the youngest. The Kafka family home and business were in the Jewish Quarter of the Prague’s Old Town. Papa Hermann retailed men’s and women’s clothing. (The business logo was a bird, kavka, Czech for jackdaw.)  The Kafkas, father and son, shared a fraught relationship, largely because the former had a domineering, tyrannical nature. Emotional alienation, oppression, claustrophobia, foreboding and fear permeate Kafka’s stories – giving him what probably no other author has got, an adjective of his own. Kafkaesque describes a situation or atmosphere that is repressive or nightmarish, in a manner characteristic of the fictional world of Kafka. Metamorphosis – also known as The Bug Story – typically begins with what is, perhaps, the most fantastic opening line ever written: As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found him himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. This story alone has been, and will continue to be, the inspiration for film makers, theatre directors, musicians and writers, who ponder on the meaning of becoming and being, reinvent it, relocate it across time and space, generation after generation.

What is it that maDSCN0382kes Kafka’s fiction so popular nearly a century after it was written? Like the best stories, his stories, too, are ‘experiences’. They evoke, in simple, even dry language, powerful feelings such as despair, loneliness, fear, confusion and guilt which resonate in the reader probably because these very same feelings are generated in us by the lives we live today.  Haven’t we all felt, at some time or the other, misunderstood, maligned and, worse, persecuted? Haven’t we come across people whose world-view is scary? Doesn’t TV watching sometimes give one the feeling that what one is seeing has no connection with one’s reality? Aren’t there days when newspaper headlines make no sense? Don’t we all know what filling forms and waiting in a queue – at the Visa office, at the bank – feels like? Hasn’t one tried and, sometimes, failed to work a ticket machine in a language one does not know?  Life sucks, Kafka seems to say, but in a way we have no one else to blame but ourselves for our predicament. Gregor Samsa turns into an insect because the life he leads day after  day as a travelling salesman, scurrying from town to town, catching train after train, is  not all that different from the life of an insect. It is, in fact, Life As We Know It.

This may sound grim, but Kafka’s writing is not without humour. His style, crisp, dry, understated,  is uber cool. It is quintessential Irony. Less is More. The joke is frequently on oneself, but it is a form of revenge, a gallows humour kind of survival tactic, in which the victim has the laugh, though it is probably his last one.

There’s nothing quite like dysfunctional relationships to make one appreciate the irony of life.  Typically, Kafka was engaged several times but never married anyone. Despite having a dad who did not understand his artistic nature, he lived at home till the age of 31.  He moved out later to his own rented room, but the hustle-bustle of the street below would send him rushing off for peace and quiet to Ottla’s little house on Golden Lane, and this was where the collection The Country Doctor was penned.DSCN0367

Kafka’s footprints are to be found all over Prague: the house where he was born ( though only the door remains from the original), the different homes in which he lived, the building that housed his school, the synagogue he visited, the university he attended, the café where he used to hang out with friends. It is as if Prague is Kakfa and Kafka is Prague. In his stories, however, the city features subliminally.  For instance, it is hard to connect the charming turrets and gleaming spires of Prague Castle with the surreal setting of his unfinished novel The Castle, a haunting tale that satirizes modern bureaucracy, much in the vein of  the more famous story, The Trial, where an innocent man is arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to death for no reason, by an all-powerful authority.‘ Like a dog’ are his last words. Life’s a bitch and then you die. Kafka didn’t say it that way, but what he said was the same thing. More or less.

Typically, Kafka did not care for fame. And typically it came to him after his death at the age of 40, of tuberculosis in 1924. As a dying request to his friend Max Brod, he wrote: Everything I leave behind… to be burned unread. We are fortunate that his friend did nothing of the sort.