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Who Was the Biologist Somerset Maugham Met in Calcutta?

Updated: Apr 6

Left: Cover of the book titled "Points of View" by Somerset Maugham. Right: Photo of Maugham.
Left: Book cover. Source: Amazon. Right: Somerset Maugham in 1934. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection. Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Somerset Maugham visited India in the 1930s (he gives the year as 1936 in the essay that is the subject of this post, but I've read that it was actually 1938). He describes this visit in an essay called "The Saint" that I found in a collection of his essays, Points of View, published by Vintage in 2000. This volume, the last collection of Maugham's essays, was first published in 1958. The saint referred to in the title is Ramana Maharshi, who established an ashram in Tiruvannamalai in the state of Tamil Nadu. Maugham traveled in a car from Madras to visit the ashram and meet Ramana Maharshi.

Maugham describes this meeting in "The Saint." He was fascinated by Ramana Maharshi, and after his visit, read all the voluminous material Maharshi's enthusiastic followers sent him. Maugham also learned all he could about Hinduism and the life of Ramana Maharshi. In the essay, Maugham describes the basics of meditation, Samadhi, the Upanishads, Brahma, Ishvar, re-incarnation and karma, and Sankara and Advaita. He explains that all this is essential background, necessary prerequisites, in order to understand the life of Ramana Maharshi. The essay concludes with a rather touching and sympathetic account of the life, teachings, and death of Ramana Maharshi.

Photo of Ramana Maharshi on a chair with the holy hill Arunachala behind him.
Ramana Maharshi on a chair with the holy hill Arunachala behind him. Source: Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

I was surprised at Maugham's interest in spiritualism. I had enjoyed some of his novels and short stories, and spiritualism did not seem to enter them even tangentially. His stories were about the earthly concerns of worldly men and women. Besides, Maugham was a lifelong atheist, was he not? Why was he expending so much time and energy on spiritualism? It took a little investigation to answer this question. I learned that I was wrong in one respect: spiritualism did play an important role in one of his novels.

Maugham had once admitted that he lacked great powers of imagination. Unable to conjure up characters with his imagination, he hit upon an effective alternative method: he based the characters in his novels on people he met. Of course, all novelists do this, but unlike them, Maugham seemed to be completely dependent on this technique. His first novel, Liza of Lambeth, was based on his experiences as a medical student in the slums of London. Maugham traveled widely, and one important motivation for his travels seems to have been to find characters for his novels. Maugham was shy and not the type to mix freely in company, but his traveling companion, secretary, and lover, Gerald Haxton, was a gregarious person who greatly expanded Maugham's social circle and potential cast of characters.

All his life Maugham had re-purposed the people he met on his travels as characters in his novels, and his visit to Tiruvannamalai was no exception. Maugham's forays into spiritualism seem to have been a part of his research for The Razor's Edge, which was published in 1944. It turns out that he modeled the spiritual guru in The Razor's Edge on Ramana Maharshi, and the title of the book is taken from a verse in the Katha Upanishad. "The Saint" seems to showcase all the research he did in order to infuse realism into the spiritual guru he created in The Razor's Edge.

It's now time to introduce the question I pose in my title. In "The Saint," Maugham describes a meeting with "an Indian biologist of some distinction" in Calcutta. This biologist's wife was an American, and during the conversation, she described an overnight railway journey she undertook with her husband to a nearby town. The wooden seats were uncomfortable, and their co-passengers were up all night eating and talking loudly. She couldn't sleep, and the next morning, after they checked into their hotel, she collapsed on the bed in exhaustion. Her husband, however, a deeply religious man who spent a couple of hours every day in meditation, had entered into Samadhi soon after they entered the train compartment, spent the night in blissful contemplation of the Infinite, and awoke from his trance in the morning as fresh as though he had been asleep in his bed at home. Maugham does not name this Indian biologist, and I wondered who he was. Surely, it couldn't be difficult to find out in the age of Google, especially with the giveaway clues that the biologist was religious, was in all likelihood a Bengali from Calcutta, and that his wife was American?

However, to my surprise, Google did not help, and I was forced to resort to desperate measures. I located a prominent Indian zoologist of that period who looked like a promising candidate because in the family photos posted by his children on Facebook, his wife looked Caucasian. I messaged his children on Facebook, but unsurprisingly, they did not reply to this personal question wrapped up as a historical mystery sent by a total stranger. A couple of other leads (including a blog on Maugham's visit to India by a follower of Ramana Maharshi) led nowhere. Biographies of Maugham did not seem to answer the question. Admitting defeat, I put the problem aside.

Years later, when I read Women in the Wild: Stories of India's Most Brilliant Women Wildlife Biologists by Anita Mani, I thought I'd found a way to solve the mystery. The first chapter, titled "The First Lady of Indian Ornithology," was written by Raza Kazmi. The chapter was about how Raza solved the mystery of Jamal Ara, who had written prolifically on ornithology from 1949 to 1988 and then suddenly vanished. Nobody knew what had happened to her. Raza set out to unravel this mystery, which defied him for many frustrating years. Every lead he followed up led to a dead end. One day, while trawling the Net, he came across an article on an accomplished geography teacher, who mentioned that her mother was Jamal Ara. That was the breakthrough he needed; he traced the teacher through her school, met her in her house, and learned the story of Jamal Ara's life. Why did she suddenly vanish in 1988, you ask? Please buy the book for the answer! Raza's story is a fascinating real-life psychological thriller.

Cover of the book "Women in the Wild" by Anita Mani.
Book cover. Source: Amazon.

I now had to hunt the hunter. I traced Raza Kazmi's email address from an online article and explained my quest for the identity of the biologist Maugham had met in Calcutta. I was sure that Raza's interest would be piqued by my search, which was somewhat similar in spirit to his own search for Jamal Ara. I was sure that if he tapped his wide network (he was a journalist, after all), the answer would be obtained. I waited expectantly for his reply, but it did not arrive. Maybe my email had ended up in his spam folder. I was now almost ready to give up my quest, but I had one last trick up my sleeve. Several months of preoccupation passed before I acted.

I wrote to Devangshu Datta, a friend from Calcutta, a chess player like me, about my Maugham problem. I explained that I had written to Raza Kazmi and received no reply. Could he help me get in touch with Raza? I was optimistic because Devangshu was a journalist. Devangshu said Raza often spent months together in the field without email access, but he promised to try. A few hours later, he went one better: he had found out the name of the biologist Maugham met! Devangshu is a quizzard, and he had circulated my query among his circle of quizzards; someone in that circle knew the answer.

Drum roll, trumpets ... the biologist Maugham met in Calcutta was ... Basiswar Sen (aka Boshi Sen). Read all about him here: I'm ashamed to admit that I had not heard of him before. Many of India's past high achievers languish in obscurity; their lives and achievements need to be given pride of place in our school textbooks and their birth anniversaries publicly celebrated.

Photo of Basiswar Sen in Tennessee, 1955
Basiswar Sen in Tennessee, 1955. Source: Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

In retrospect, I wondered if I had searched the Net smartly enough. Should I have tried one of those new AI-powered search engines? Perhaps they would have answered my question in a few seconds? As a test, I put my question to the AI-powered search engine, You can see the result below. I included "married to an American" in the question because it is an important clue, but it seems to have been too juicy a bone for the AI to digest.

Screenshot of question posed to AI engine and the answer given by it.

Picture of an owl saying, "I need whatever it is smoking."


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