Aubrey Menen: A tribute (1912 – 1989)
Salvatore Aubrey Clarence Menen – The wicked satirist
Black and white movies had given way to Eastman color, television was just making an entry but Radio Ceylon and Vividbharati ruled the airwaves. There were no fast food places and cricket still took all of 5 days with Anand Satalwad and Suresh Saraiya commenting on it, while the faster versions like 20-20 or one day cricket were yet to be popularized. Yezdi-Java and Bullet bikes ruled the road, while Amby and fiat cars crawled through pot holed roads, not sensibly attempting to race with the two wheelers. Computers did not work overtime to beef up finger muscles or screw up your mind in those calmer days. At best you could go see a movie or go walking or cycling. Magazines and books took up spare time, a time available when not trying to discover and understand life in the open. That was the time when we had magazines like Imprint and JS, it was a time when we had music like Beatles, Beegees and novels by thought provoking and interesting writers ….
Yes, that was the time when we tried hard without luck to find books by this writer – Aubrey Menen, remember him? Perhaps not! For those who have not the faintest clue who this was (too bad, you missed something), here is a little something, rearranging his life in some words. He was the one who said – “Men of all races have always sought for a convincing explanation for their own astonishing excellence and they have frequently found what they were looking for.”
He was a confused person perhaps, where the problems of identity started right at birth. Today we have usages like ABCD –American Born Confused Desi, but in the case of Aubrey, it had started so many decades ago, when he was born to a Malayali father Dr KN Menon and an Irish-English mother in 1912, a very unique situation. As a result, his entire life was spent in limbo, as a foreigner in Britain due to his skin color and a foreigner in India due to his English parentage and upbringing. Many other things including sexuality confused him and his attempts to find answers to all those resulted in some beautiful prose and satire, very different from the others writing at that time, both Indian and English.
Let’s start with a sampler with Menen’s classic satire He once told the publication ‘Contemporary Authors’ that any aspiring writer should perform daily physical exercise: He should sit on his bottom in front of a table equipped with writing materials. If his top end fails him, at least his nether end won’t. That’s Menen for you.
One of his usual haunts during his final years was the British library in Trivandrum, a place I myself had frequented during holidays. The thought took me back to the days when I would cycle from Kazhakootam to the city where my friend Venu lived. We would sometimes go to the British council library or the Indian coffee house nearby. During those jaunts, we may have come across the shorts clad, white haired author and his companion, but in those days writers did not have such popularity and their pictures and persona were not well known to people like us. Their writings caught our fancy, and his personal life was secondary.
More than the Biblical mien, it was his name that snagged my attention — Aubrey, I could understand, but Menen? Did he have anything to do with the cosmetics company Mennen, I wondered? So with little effort, I discovered that ‘Menen’ was a variant of the more familiar ‘Menon’; familiar to Malayalis that is. Aubrey Menen, I learnt, had an Irish mother and a Malayali father. I also learnt that he was a writer who had retired to Trivandrum.
The answer to that question was actually very interesting and entirely due to another Menon, a dominant person, one I had written about often, the esteemed V K Krishna Menon. I will write in detail about their interesting association another day, but as it happens, Menen had became involved with Krishna Menon’s India League in London and himself toured Britain as a speaker supporting Menon’s efforts. So that he would not be confused with Krishna Menon, who was a friend of his father, Aubrey anglicized his name to Menen from the original Aubrey Menon.
For those who may wonder what Aubrey means – Aubrey is the Norman French form of an Old Germanic name, Albirich meaning “Elf Ruler” or Blond ruler from “aelf” (elf) and “ric” (ruler, power). In later days it was more a girl’s name. You can imagine the young lad’s consternation; Aubrey was neither blond nor a girl. And that would plague him for the rest of his life, I suppose.
So now you got the name and the person behind it. Time magazine described him thus – “Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble,” lamented Job. But trouble fairly brims over when a man is born, as was Aubrey Menen, of an Irishwoman and a Hindu, is registered as a native Briton and educated like a true-born Englishman. Beset by so many distorting mirrors, such a man is bound to see the baffling jigsaw puzzle of his identity with either tears or laughter. Novelist Menen (The Prevalence of Witches, The Duke of Gallodoro) chooses laughter.
Menen thus born in 1912 to an Irish mother and Indian father, and raised Roman Catholic in London, graduated from University College. Now look at the complications that were his baggage, Indian, Irish and Roman Catholic, all minorities. Living in England must not have been fun, and Britain in those (First World War) days was not easy going and forgiving.
Menen says – I (my dark looks) was made much of by the English and even given pennies by old gentlemen on the street since some Indians fighting on the western front were cutting off German necks with their kukris. But towards the end of the war I was mistaken for a Turk and I earned unkind looks since the Turks were reported to be cutting off testicles of their English prisoners. But by the end of the war which was won, the Indians who cut the necks were to be seen in Britain and soon gentlemen were again giving me pennies in the street.
When he was 12, he visited India since his grandmother demanded that he be brought to her. One of the most interesting pieces from his writing collection was about this visit to meet his grandmother at Ponnani near Palakkad. In those paragraphs you can get to know Menen by what he wrote, and you can glean his satire, his original thought in text and his mental reach. He recounts…
My grandmother was something of a stick, she had a driving will, she would not be balked and whatever she did was designed to strike the spectator with awe. She 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…She thought that married women who wore blouses and pretty saris were jezebels, in her view a wife who dressed herself above her waist, could only be aiming at adultery!!!
During this visit Menen’s Irish mother was put up in an outhouse so that the main house would not be defiled by the entry of the non-Hindu – ‘the Englishwoman’. Menen goes on – Grandma had never met the English, but she knew all about them. She knew they were tall, fair, given to good drink, good soldiers and that they had conquered her native country. She also knew they were incurably dirty in their personal habits (all about not taking baths while the Malayali took at least two a day). She respected them but wished they would keep their distance.
The schoolboy returned to Britain with memories of the domineering grandmother, her palanquin and her words, grew up and graduated, briefly learning about the problems of the ‘not independent’ India from the India league and his mind was soon in turmoil. After graduating in 1932, Menen became the drama critic for The Bookman from 1933 to 1934, director of the Experimental Theater from 1935 to 1936 and director of the Personalities Press Service from 1937 to 1939. By 1939, he was India bound and soon found a job at the All-India radio.
His father was the happiest person when Aubrey told him that he was going to India. People like George Orwell had been broadcasting in the AIR and Menen in addition, also worked as a script writer for propaganda films. Soon this was to establish him as a leading radio personality before he meandered into the Ad agency Walter Thompson’s film department. By 1948, the second war had come to an end and he had got into full time writing. As India became independent, he moved back to Britain to oversee the publication of his book Prevalence of witches. ”The Stumbling Stone” (1949), ”The Backward Bride” (1950), ”The Fig Tree” (1959), ”Shela” (1962) and ”A Conspiracy of Women” (1965) followed soon after. Many more books, essays, interviews and articles followed and he had soon established himself as a good writer. And yet he was to say this of his writing passion – ‘Any good writing is an immense struggle. That is why most people aren’t writers. It is the hardest profession in the world’.
But what caught India by storm was – The Ramayana, As Told by Aubrey Menen (1954) where Menen suggested that Brahmins kept rewriting Valmiki’s tale to get it to say the very opposite of what the original poet originally meant. Devout Hindus were horrified by the liberties Menen took with a sacred text and the book was soon banned in India.
of what is accepted as Valmiki’s treatise. He went about doing it in such a lovely, ironically lusty & nonsensical fashion that it was no wonder purists of the time got the book banned. At the end of the book, Rama asks Valmiki which is real and a smiling Valmiki replies – ‘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’.
Aubrey could be unpredictable, once while being interviewed by the press, Menen was asked what he considered the most important book written in India since independence. He replied: ‘The 1954 All India Rural Credit Survey’. Frankly I cannot as yet figure out if he was serious or sarcastic, nevertheless, the Report is stated to have vividly portrayed the rural credit scenario under which people mostly cultivators, operated at that time and the dynamics of the interrelationship between the cultivators and the lenders, both formal and informal.
A man can be judged by his usage of words at a specific time, and Menen could also be credited to be very thoughtful for he once said, At the beginning of the sixteenth century, [Rome] was a squalid city, with narrow, insanitary streets, rat-infested medieval houses, and moldering ruins. Although it was the seat of the papacy, its moral vices were notorious. The situation was summed up in a famous story, much quoted. A Jew was brought by a Christian to Rome. After a year, the Jew became a Christian. Asked by the astonished citizens why, he replied that if God permitted the things to go on that he had seen, then Christianity must be the true faith. [Menen, Aubrey, Art & Money: An Irreverent History, 1980, McGrawHill, p. 115]
Again Britain proved to be claustrophobic for Menon and he moved to Italy. As he described it, it was a space midway between India and England, and Menen lived there until 1980. Not many people may know this; he was also our late Madhavi Kutti’s (Kamala Das – Suraiyya) relative, a sort of cousin or uncle. One reference mentions that Kamala was married to his first cousin. Some of his statements can be so different – when he wrote about the locust (Menen’s Ramayana) which learns that ‘if you learn history you can predict the future ‘provided things don’t turn out differently’.
As we read about him, here and there, we come to a question that Anusua Mukerjee asks in her Telegraph article linked here – But for all the pleasures of piecing together an author from his novels, a niggling query remains, one that can be answered only by a possible biographer. Who is Philip Dallas, to whom three of the four novellas are dedicated? Was he someone like Alexander’s Hephaestion (A Conspiracy of Women), the lonely conqueror’s only friend and companion with whom his wives could never compete, and who speaks some of the lines that are almost shocking in their poignancy, given the general frigidity of Menen’s tone? “‘When Alexander and I were eleven,’ said Hephaestion, ‘we decided that by thirty we would certainly have conquered Persia and most probably Egypt. The problem was what we would do at thirty-one. I remember we decided that the only fitting thing for two such great men would be to be dead.’” I keep speculating about the mysterious dedicatee.
In fact not three but at least some 10 books/novellas are dedicated to Dallas. Menen would have firmly identified the person if he wanted to, and to understand his personal side, you have to read his biography ‘The space within my heart’. I would guess that Dallas was Graham Hall based on the rights ownership of his works, but it is only speculation and has never been confirmed by Menen or Hall. You are taken into his mind if you read that autobiographical book which wrestles with his sexuality and gay life, and a lifestyle that was taboo during his time.
And then he finally he moved to where his father’s life had started – the magical state of Kerala where he went on to spend his last days. He knew perhaps that he had only a little time and he remarked ‘Well, I was still alive, and if I had to die, Kerala was a beautiful place to die in. Had not Baudelaire written a perfect poem to a Malabar girl, advising her to stay where she was and not go to ugly, cold Europe?. Anybody who wants to learn a bit more about Baudelaire is recommended to read the CHF article
Sankar remembers – In 1980s-Trivandrum, Aubrey Menen stood out like a sore thumb. By then into the last years of his life, Menen looked quite like the quintessential Biblical prophet, a slightly impish prophet: serene face, flowing white beard and long-ish white hair. Of course, notions of prophecy were slightly dispelled by the tan shorts and sun hat that he often wore while pottering around Trivandrum’s central Statue and Pulimood neighborhoods.
But Aubrey Menen saw life differently; take a look at this excerpt from the preface to his book ‘A conspiracy of Woman’………..
“You must often have wondered why men of good will, like you and like me, never seem to get our own way. We want the whole world to live in peace and harmony and we do our best to see that it does. Then why is there always war, and trouble, and quarrels?
Here is the answer. I have had to travel four continents and spend a lifetime in study to find it. But like all important truths, it is very simple. As a matter of fact, it is so simple that I have been able to state it in the first seven lines of this story. If you are pressed for time, those are all you need to read.”
So what were the first seven lines?
“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.
That was Menen for you…. And he went on to make so many more great utterances….
Some samples are recounted below
“The essence of success is that it is never necessary to think of a new idea oneself. It is far better to wait until somebody else does it, and then to copy him in every detail, except his mistakes.”
Or the time when he said in an interview with the Illustrated weekly – Gandhi had a sensitive stomach. All people with sensitive stomachs make the life of those around them a misery. When the interviewer continued if Gandhi’s lasting influence will be good or bad, Menen answered – Ah! Will it last?
Or this – Fate is something you believe in when things are not going well. When they are, you forget it.
But he could be irreverent – It is a mark of genius not to astonish but to be astonished. Or when he said this ‘That is the whole trouble with being a heretic. One usually must think out everything for oneself’.
Those who like his writing style will also enjoy his article on Mysticism – he starts thus – ‘The men who started the whole business would probably think it a pity I can write and you can read. They could do neither.
Finally he came home and fittingly he spent his last years in the care of Dr Krishnan Nair at Kerala undergoing treatment for throat cancer, breathing his last in Trivandrum in 1989.
Alas! The good man is gone from this world, but his charming writing remains, and I wonder, if only people found the will and urge to read them. Perhaps one or two reading this will make that attempt and enjoy the fruits of Menen’s labor.