Is fun fun?

The particular strangeness of Aubrey Menen

Aubrey Menen, with his “pinched male Madonna with long hair and spectacles” look. Express archive photo
01 June, 2015

THE NEWSPAPERS HAD OTHER THINGS on their minds the day Aubrey Menen died, in 1989. He was just about important enough for the New York Times to note that Menen, “a novelist, critic and essayist, died of throat cancer on Feb. 13 in Trivandrum in Kerala, India. He was 76 years old.” The Times of India noted, delicately, that he had been “a bachellor [sic].” But what did this matter? A hundred men had been injured in Srinagar that day in protests against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The next day, Ayatollah Khomeini appeared on Radio Tehran to deliver one of the most devastating pieces of literary criticism in recent history, calling for the execution of that apostate and blasphemer, Rushdie.

It had long been Menen’s fate to have his literary achievements overshadowed by political controversy. Menen shared with Rushdie a distinction India hands out so bountifully: he had had a novel of his banned. In fact, he was among the first in the history of independent India to be so honoured, in the heady days when this put one’s work on a short list consisting mostly of Jehovah’s Witness propaganda and Urdu erotica from Pakistan.

The Times of India gave this ban, meted out in 1955, a couple of lines in a humourless parliamentary sketch: “The deputy Home Minister, Mr. BN Datar, said that the import into India of the book ‘Rama Retold’ by Mr. Aubrey Menen published in Great Britain had been prohibited.” The minister seems to have given no grounds for the ban, and the column moved swiftly on to more interesting news: a survey of the country’s chromite reserves, and the discovery of a hundred prehistoric skeletons in the Garhwal Himalayas.

Rama Retold, published by Chatto and Windus in 1954, is what its name implies: a retelling of the Ramayana. Menen claimed to be setting the record straight, stripping the urtext of centuries of devout accretions, but he was doing no such thing. It was a piece of satire, impious and Rabelaisian, with a less than perfect set of protagonists. It had already received sterling commendations from the senior statesman and writer C Rajagopalachari—“It is ... nonsense but of the unreadable kind, i.e. pure nonsense”—and the senior journalist MV Kamat—“an abomination ... in no culture is virtue and decency laughing matter [sic].” The ban on it stands, and it has not been in print for a long time even in the West.

It was, perhaps, simply too raucous, too bawdy, for anyone to have taken it up as a test case in India’s always-fragile attitude to freedom of expression. Dare one quote from Rama Retold? Just a sentence, perhaps, from its concluding pages, in case the censors are reading: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.” Much of Menen’s prose is like this, full of emphatic declarations that are pithy, provocative, very possibly false, yet always honest. His writings—novels, plays and essays—take on god and human folly, but never directly. He did what he could with laughter, as he recommends here. Virtue and decency, or what tend to pass for them, are always laughing matters in his writing. So is everything else.

An aesthete with a delicate, ironic sensibility, he could never have been the centre of a political agitation. He was, defiantly, a “minor” writer. But there is every reason to think he revelled in the fact of his minority, except where it meant smaller royalties. He passed the academic critics by just as he was forgotten by champions of free speech, but this might have been a stroke of luck.

Compare him to that other scourge of zealots, Salman Rushdie, condemned to death by a thousand dissertations after he survived the fatwa against him, turned into so much a symbol of a cause as to make many feel it unnecessary to read him at all. Menen, on the other hand, survived his youthful controversy. He never became a symbol; he ended up being a “character,” whose life was his greatest work. A stylist of unusual talent, he captured his life, opinions and personality first in his novels, and then in his autobiographical non-fiction. First political, then sensual, then spiritual, these memoirs tell of a life so remarkable, in a prose so captivating, that he has never been entirely forgotten.

The poet Adil Jussawalla once wrote a long tribute to him in that forgotten home of intelligent smut Debonair, ruing the fact that so much of his writing was out of print. Every now and then, the journalist Jerry Pinto will quote a bit of Menen in his columns to great comic effect. The scholar Leela Gandhi is persuaded he is an “important though neglected novelist” who “deserves a more respected place in the annals of the Indian English novel.”

Gandhi is right, but “respected” risks giving precisely the wrong idea. “Oh doomful question: is fun, fun?” a friend once wrote to the comic novelist Nancy Mitford. “Yes it is,” she replied, decisively. Menen, like Mitford and countless other “minor” writers, raises, with something like urgency, the question: Is importance important? No, whispers the ghost of Aubrey Menen. No it isn’t. But maybe fun is.

MENEN WAS BORN IN LONDON, and christened Aubrey Menon—his father was a Nair from Kerala who married an Irish nurse while a student at a London hospital. He later changed how he spelt his name to avoid being mistaken for that other Malayali abroad in London at the time: the maverick socialist VK Krishna Menon. Armed with the genes of two famously voluble races, he did the best he could as a brown boy in England of the early twentieth century, talking back to the bullies and racists he met. Old men on the street gave him pennies because they had heard tell of doughty Indians on the Western Front fighting the Hun on their behalf. Sometimes, errand boys shouted after him having decided he was in fact a Turk, and therefore an enemy. A kindly schoolteacher let him know that though he was that terrible thing, a “Eurasian,” Jesus loved him nevertheless.

These vignettes from Menen’s childhood come from the superb Dead Man in the Silver Market, a memoir composed of short essays on the three kinds of nationalism he grew up knowing: Irish, British, and Indian. The book was published in 1954, at roughly the same time that Rama Retold was being declared an offense to virtue and decency. Its first line establishes the aphoristic tone it manages, extraordinarily, to maintain for its full length, and provides an accurate indication of the book’s themes and style: “Men of all races have always sought for a convincing explanation of their own astonishing excellence and they have frequently found what they were looking for.”

Menen has much fun with well-worn imperial clichés. The Irish are teased for their obsession with martyrdom, ideally at the hands of some villainous Englishman. But Menen is at his absurd best chronicling his first visit to that formidable Nair matriarch, his grandmother, slowly reconciling herself to her son’s reckless choice of wife.

A 12-year-old Aubrey escorted his mother to Calicut, where they boarded a “dug out canoe” in which they “were poled on a moonlit night up the Ponani River. The river was lined with palm trees and crocodiles.” He kept his mother’s courage up with a song he had been taught at school about Francis Drake and the Spanish Armada. The crocodiles were kept at bay.

They arrived at the family estate. Aubrey’s mother was established in a separate house to keep the defilement to a minimum, and never met her mother-in-law. The matriarch, we are told,

rarely spoke to anyone who was not of her own social station and she received them formally: that is to say, with her breasts completely bare. Even in her time, women were growing lax about this custom in Malabar. But my grandmother ... thought that married women who wore blouses and pretty saris were Jezebels; in her view, a wife who dressed herself could only be aiming at adultery.

She had a guarded respect for the English as long as they kept their physical distance. That her daughter-in-law was in fact Irish was a too-subtle distinction she chose to ignore. Speaking to her grandson in Malayalam that one of her sons translated, she informed him that he was not to “take a bath in one of those contraptions in which you sit in dirty water like a buffalo.” He ought, she said, to set an example of civilisation to his English schoolfellows. Young Aubrey’s headmaster had said the same thing to him in London about the benighted natives on his father’s side.

He returned to England, where he would later study philosophy at University College, London. He briefly found himself in sympathy with Descartes. “I think therefore I am” seemed to him a better motto than “I have drunk cow’s urine. I bathe twice a day … I avoid untouchables and therefore I am an orthodox Nayar with a stake in some coconut groves in the Southern extremity of India.”

MENEN WAS “DISCOVERED” as a literary talent even while at university. HG Wells thought well enough of the cocky young man to have him dramatise his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come. After he spent a few years writing theatre reviews in London, some literary friends of Menen’s wangled for him an invitation to visit the Nawab of Bhopal, in 1939. The Nawab, no reader (he preferred polo), nonetheless liked the idea of commissioning a man from London to write a book about his kingdom. Menen obliged, but his caustic portrait of debauched royals cannot have been what the Nawab expected to pay for. Among the people Menen met on that trip to India, his first as an adult, was a young descendent of the Maratha king Shivaji who insisted on being called “George”—“All my friends do”—and prattled wildly about his horses.

“I see you’re looking round the room,” he said. “It’s vulgar, isn’t it? Oh, yes, it is. I know. I haven’t got taste. If only I’d been given an English education like you I’d have dam’ good taste. You’ve got taste. Oh yes you have. You’re bound to have. Look at the way you make noises when I ask you questions you don’t want to answer. Like this.” He put down his spoon and made deprecating sounds. “I can’t do that, you see. If I’d have been sent to school in England I’d have been able to do it without thinking, like you ...”

Menen’s George is an early literary representation of a type that VS Naipaul would make famous: a mimic man. He is the product of what the critic Homi Bhabha would, in a rare lucid utterance, call “a flawed colonial mimesis, in which to be Anglicized is emphatically not to be English.” Menen is in many ways a Naipaul without the abrasive masculinity, possessed of the same invulnerability to the rhetoric of nations, the same capacity for tragicomedy, and for writing prose where every word seems inevitable. He is a Naipaul without the racist streak, one who never gave up on the comic mode. Every now and then, but no oftener, Menen gives us chilling moments where his frivolity vanishes. It might well have been Naipaul who wrote the cold, comfortless conclusion to Dead Man in the Silver Market:

There are no national virtues. We are alone, each one of us. If we are good, we are good ourselves. If we are bad, the virtues of others will not make us better. We cannot borrow morals. They are ours or they do not exist for us.

Some of these bleak thoughts were occasioned by the Second World War. Unable to return to England, Menen moved to Bombay, where he was first put in charge of Allied war propaganda on Indian radio, then asked to produce educational films. He turned 30 there, and, hoping to find in himself some hitherto unnoticed love of humanity, decided to go and live among the Dangs in what is now Gujarat, armed with a suitcase full of anti-malarial prophylactics. He tried and failed to teach the adivasis there about the bite of the anopheles mosquito and to wean them off their belief in witchcraft.

Menen left the jungle and returned to Bombay. Alone in his hotel room while the monsoon rains poured outside, he wrote his first novel, The Prevalence of Witches. It is one of the rare books of his still in print in India, as part of a four-novel omnibus Penguin India published in 2010. The book features some glorious passages of deadpan comedy where it has idealistic colonial officers trying to bring medicine and Enlightenment values to the benighted souls of “Limbo.”

It is the Limbodians who come out tops. The Prevalence of Witches is that difficult thing, a comic novel of ideas. Its tutelary spirit was not the cerebral HG Wells, but Aldous Huxley, a favourite writer of Menen’s. The novel was praised, but not for its novelistic virtues. “Even in his novels,” the expatriate Indian author Santha Rama Rau wrote from New York, “Aubrey Menen is at his best writing essays”—a backhanded but accurate compliment. Perhaps the best of Menen’s novels is A Conspiracy of Women, published in 1965, where the life of Alexander the Great provides material for a romping satire on great men and a comedy of power. Its message, the preface ironically declares, is stated in the novel’s first seven lines, which read thus:

One day when Alexander the Great was sitting in his tent he said to his friend Hephaestion, “Hephaestion, have you ever thought about the fact that women make up half the human race?”

“Once,” said Hephaestion.

“And what did you think about it?” said Alexander.

“I thought it was a pity,” said Hephaestion.

Menen’s novels are full of such set pieces of arch and self-consciously clever exchange. There is no point looking in them for naturalistic dialogue, psychological realism or pathos. They read more like philosophical dialogues from Hume as Oscar Wilde might have rewritten them. (Menen would have enjoyed the comparison: he once tried and failed to write a play about Wilde.) Nationalism yesterday, the caste system today, British masculinity tomorrow—Menen’s fiction shares with much of his non-fiction a need for targets.

His memoirs and novels, in their sui generis strangeness, sometimes evoke a minor tradition in British writing: the comic works of EF Benson, best known for his Mapp and Lucia novels of rural one-up(wo)manship from the 1920s and 1930s, or the supremely artificial novels of Ronald Firbank, where characters say things like, “The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.” Firbank’s novels appear on the American essayist Susan Sontag’s iconic list of works characterised by a “camp” sensibility—in other words, a “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” If Menen belongs on any list, it is on Sontag’s canon of campness.

Menen had ten novels published between 1947 and 1974, though he wrote at least a couple of others that were never released. The books made him money, at least in the early years of his career, enough to let him move to Italy in 1950. He found in that country, where he spent a large chunk of his adult life, the ideal setting for someone of his temperament. The other countries he knew well—India, Britain, Ireland, the United States—had in common the belief that

they had fewer moral failings than the rest of mankind. ... I decided to live among the Italians, who have given up such illusions. I am often asked why I continue to live in Italy. I answer that it seems to me that human nature works here much as the Creator intended. I am told that it is a low aim. The Italians agree. I am unmoved. After all, the trouble with the Devil was that he strove for higher things.

In Italy, Menen found what he needed: a place where virtue and decency were laughing matters.

MENEN WROTE CONSTANTLY IN ITALY, keeping himself going once royalties on his novels declined by accepting commissions from Holiday magazine to produce short, pungent pieces of travelogue about his new country. Despite their middlebrow venue, these writings, as Adil Jussawalla observed in Debonair, had higher aspirations than the typical travel feature. They took as their subject not just travel, but the impulse to leave home.

Menen had forsworn any serious political engagement with India, but he sustained an intermittent interest in its artistic scene, dropping in every now and then to make a scathing judgment of a writer or political personality and leaving before anyone could challenge him. He achieved a certain degree of celebrity, but of the sort that attends a socialite, not a respectable writer. In 1973, the Times of India reported:

The internationally-known writer, Aubrey Menen, was pushed out of the newly-built Oberoi-Sheraton in Bombay on Tuesday afternoon … Menen was told that the Canadian general manager of the hotel … had prohibited long-haired swamis, gurus and transcendental meditationists from the hotel. … Menen told this paper … “My mind goes back to the days when you could not go to several places in Bombay except in European costume and the national dress was prohibited.”

Khalid Mohamed, then an up-and-coming Times of India journalist, produced a magnificently catty profile in 1977 of the man on one of his sporadic trips from Italy to the fatherland. He started by recalling the hotel incident:

Newspapers … carried his picture, showing him as a pinched male Madonna with long hair and spectacles. This time I went to see him at his hotel (not five-star) suite; the face in the photograph had grown a snow white beard, a sagging chin—a mark of the years. … He wore a safari shirt, a visible paunch underneath held together by a great big buckle, sipped gin with orange juice from two straws. It was a little like meeting a blend of the comic, sad and peculiar caricatures of his novels.

The profile was accompanied by three photographs, from 1963, 1972 and 1977. Mohamed drove the knife in:

the latest [face] seems a spoof of Hemingway’s—there’s a cultivated saltiness, an untidiness. Menen buries his face in the hands, cries, “You are insulting. More insulting than Mulk Raj Anand. He said I look like Walt Whitman. Urchins in Rome call me Michelangelo. Yes, your question about my faces upsets, upsets me a great deal.”

The prima-donna-ish reply was typical of Menen’s persona at this stage in his life, just as Mohamed’s irreverence was characteristic of public attitudes to him. Menen no longer cared; in fact, he seems to have encouraged these attitudes. He was, as Jussawalla would later write,

responsible for the more superficial view of himself, and his book is an attempt at owning up to that responsibility. At a crucial point in his life he realises he doesn’t know who he is. His social self which required him to play a social role has been built on glib responses, accepted answers, the question being “Who am I?”

The book to which Jussawalla refers is Menen’s finest: the last of his three autobiographical works, The Space Within the Heart, published in 1970. In a better world, it would not today be out of print. It shares with its predecessors, Dead Man in the Silver Market and Speaking the Language Like a Native, a 1962 collection of essays about his Italian years, a predilection for assertion over argument, provocation over persuasion, but also has something new: a capacity for pathos.

The Space Within the Heart begins with an encounter with Pope John XXIII at the Vatican. The holy father refuses to believe Menen could be, as his passport suggests, English. “These bones aren’t English. Nor these eyes. ... You are Indian, aren’t you?” Menen considers answering “partly,” but decides that one cannot tell the Pope he is only partly infallible. Menen is never one to press the point; he lets things be.

As he tells the story, he was compelled to confront honestly the question to which the Pope had given such an imperfect answer: who, or what, was he? The question was forced to his attention when an American admirer, Howard Gottlieb, asked Menen to put together a collection of his personal effects to be deposited in the Howard Gottlieb Archive in Boston. The effort of packing together his papers and photographs set him on the path of self-analysis. The political insights of Dead Man in the Silver Market were all very well, but the problems of understanding the self struck him as being deeper than he had formerly recognised. He was a great deal more, or perhaps less, than the sum of his parents’ nationalities.

The Space Within the Heart is in places a straightforward autobiography: there is a darkly funny portrait of his childhood, his parents’ complicated marriage, his mother’s quirky sexuality, and an alternately subtle and bawdy account of losing his virginity aged 17 to an older woman he meets in a Parisian opera house. She fetishises his brown skin and speculates about his mystical powers until she drives him away into the arms of a good-looking blond hustler called Claude. This is all written with the matter-of-fact frankness of someone now convinced that all this—nationality, sexuality—is beside the point.

It was in Italy that Menen had a sudden, apparently sincere, conversion to his mother’s religion, Catholicism. He found a Monsignor in Rome, a tall Irishman called O’Flaherty, and told him about Claude as they sat talking on the altar steps of an empty Sistine Chapel. “That’s no problem at all,” O’Flaherty said, “or they wouldn’t be here,” waving a hand at the nudes on the ceiling. Menen promised the monsignor he wouldn’t be that ghastly thing, a zealous convert.

It is not clear why Menen left his beloved Italy for Kerala in the twilight of his life. Perhaps he longed for the air of his father’s native country, or maybe it was just cheaper to live there. He passed the last years of his life studying the Upanishads. Unlike these texts’ more devout Indian admirers, he found in them

no moral lesson whatever. ... the philosophers of the Upanishads, after having led the reader into the very depths of his being, with shattering results to all his dearest beliefs, advise him to get up and go and enjoy himself like anybody else, with, they specify, horses, chariots, food and women.

He ends The Space Within the Heart with some advice to his reader: to start reading the Upanishads for oneself, beginning “with the seventh section of the eight chapter of the Chandogya Upanishad.” The section to which Menen refers reads, in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s translation,

The self which is free from evil, free from old age, free from death, free from grief, free from hunger and thirst, whose desire is the real, whose thought is the real, he should be sought, him one should desire to understand. He who has found out and who understands that self, he obtains all worlds and all desires.

After perusing this passage, Menen tells the reader, “he should shut himself alone in some quiet space, and think.” The conventional measures of literary significance are inadequate for a writer who takes this as his spiritual touchstone; to impose them on him seems to miss the point.

Immerse yourself in Menen long enough and the desire to make an argumentative case for his importance disappears. Importance is unimportant, he seems to say, an anxiety of the vulgar mind. But fun on the other hand… And if horses, chariots, food and women are not to your taste, there are always the books of Aubrey Menen.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.