Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Theatre by Somerset Maugham

Good actors are difficult to understand because they can fake their emotions so easily. And after recently finishing reading Theatre by Somerset Maugham, I have very few doubts about it. Julia Lambart is the best stage actress of England and has a somewhat happy family life with a husband and a son. But the family tranquil starts coming apart as she falls for a clerk, who works in her husband’s theatre company, and is two decades younger than her. The affair continues for some time, her lover finds access to the world of celebrities through Julia and Julia, now in her 50s, rediscovers her youth and starts visiting places (night clubs) where she had never been seen and, as is common with such affairs, tongues start wagging. (What is Julia Lambart doing with this young nothing?) Reputation matters for show business people and the rumour mills shake Julia a little and Julia tries to move away from her lover only to return to him again.

However, meanwhile, her young lover has met a beautiful upcoming actress and has fallen for her. He has also promised the newbie a role in Julia’s husband’s home production. Julia can easily deny her the opportunity but lest her lover thinks she is jealous of the upcoming actress having lost her lover to her Julia arranges for her to get a role.

It’s a dream come true for a struggling actress to find a role in a play which casts Julia Lambart; but, alas, for Julia’s romantic competitor, the play turns out to be a disaster as Julia, using her stage prowess, undermines her performance slaying her career without even anybody noticing Julia’s sinister thespian moves. Expect her husband, who being oblivious to Julia’s cuckolding, fails to understand why Julia would try to destroy the newbie’s performance, having helped her get the role in the first place. When he confronts Julia with his discovery, Julia, again by her sleight of hands, deceives her husband into believing that she destroyed the young actress’s performance to avenge the fact she had tried to seduce her husband. And the husband takes it as a compliment for his looks and believes it remaining oblivious to the real reason - that Julia had exacted revenge because the actress had seduced her young lover.

This was my first Somerset Maugham book and having read many writers write about Maugham reverentially, I partly knew what to expect and wasn’t disappointed. Maugham is a breezy story teller and holds you tight till the end and although he produced a commendable body of work, he never found enough literary acclaim. Maugham is read to this day but not bracketed with the likes of DH Lawrence and EM Foster who roughly came from the same period. Commenting on the puritanical attitude of literary snobs, Maugham had one said you can’t write just for the pleasure of telling a story. However, Maugham has inspired two three, generations of writers and it’s from some of their books that I first came to know about Maugham.


The characters are all human with their limitations and virtues, all trying to do the best they can within them, none is one-dimensional. Various situations bring out various sides of their personalities.

Julia Lambart is brilliant but she is self centered, an artist who attributes all her human shortcomings in some way or the other to her artistic abilities. She manipulates people around her and situations to her favour and generally has her way. Her husband is a good husband but is too believing of Julia. He is stingy but his theatre employees overlook that as he is also very courteous. He is unimaginative but that helps him to be disciplined and makes him a good manager. He is good looking and vain and can be easily won over if praised about looks. Julia’s son is growing up and developing his views on things around him and with a father busy trying to be the most attractive man in England and mother wrapped up in her acting career, he feels lonely and ignored. And so on…

The story is set in the pre Second World War period when cinema had still not overshadowed theatre and the celebrity of stage actors could be just as big as the screen ones. The novel’s central character Julia, for example, was the most famous of stage actresses of her time in England but she had limited success on screen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chinese Cottage and Chinese in India

“The specialty of Chinese food lies in its blandness. If you put too much spice it kills the authenticity. Any Chinese restaurant you visit in Bangalore the food is spicier than Chinese food is supposed to be.”

I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant which promises to serve Chinese food Tangra style, a Chinese food hub in Calcutta which is host to many small to medium size Chinese restaurants owned by Chinese people most of whom originally owned tanneries until a few years ago (foot wear and other leather products made by Chinese people are very popular in Calcutta) which had to be closed down following a state government edict forcing the Chinese owners into different occupations, food being one of them.

However, there are other Chinese food hubs in Calcutta and, according to Anthony, the one on Poddar Court Lane is the best and the oldest. Poddar Court lane is where Anthony grew up in and in later years, after doing a hotel management and failing to find any satisfactory job in Calcutta, he moved to Bangalore. His initial years in Bangalore were tough. He worked in various small to medium size Chinese hotels with Indian owners. Being a Chinese food puritan, Anthony was unhappy with the general approach towards making Chinese food in Bangalore.

Opening his own hotel was nowhere in sight in early years as Anthony was mostly busy with his day to day existence. His marriage changed that. Anthony got married to his childhood sweetheart from Calcutta and a few months after marriage his wife joined him in Bangalore and started to work. After a few years, they felt together if they saved money from their income they would be able to open a restaurant of their own. About seven to eight years of hard work, saving and a bit of loan from friends and bank led to Chinese Cottage.

Antony said the focus of Chinese Cottage is authenticity. (He told this when I was chewing my way through Chinese Chopsuey. Chinese Chopsuey was not the correct dish to check the verity of Anthony’s claim as all Chinese restaurants make it bland and have its spicier versions separately on menu card. I am a conservative food enthusiast who tries out different joints but sticks to familiar dishes. ) Blaming the Bangalore Chinese taste orientation, Anthony said, “You have to eat chilly chicken to understand what I am saying. Chilly chicken is supposed to be so bland as to be perfect for a 16 year old kid. Here it’s opposite.”

Chinese Cottage (located opposite Koramangla Club) is quite sparse with very few people on its staff and Anthony is involved in everything in a hands-on way, expect cooking. He makes sure to explain an unfamiliar dish to you, so you make an informed choice.

What brought Anthony to Bangalore? “Calcutta has become inhospitable to its Chinese population. They are approached by local bullies for huge donations for Durga and other pujas. Not having access to any power base, Chinese people don’t have anybody to turn to. Despite being into its third or fourth generation, they are treated like foreigners. Some of them don’t have any legal documents to establish their citizenship. When they try for passport, papers establishing their ancestry are asked for which are very difficult to furnish now, almost a 100 years after their ancestors came to India.

Their ancestors had been taken captive by British forces during the First World War and sent to Rajasthan whence they came to Calcutta. But why Calcutta of all places which is anyway quite far from Rajasthan? Anthony said maybe their group leader went to Calcutta first and the rest followed. In later years, the descendants of the Chinese group which came to Calcutta went on to make Calcutta the city with the highest Chinese population in India. However, this population is gradually shrinking because over the years many have moved to the US, Singapore and some to China.

While Anthony was talking to me, a bespectacled kid was running up and down the restaurant, the restaurant being quite empty at this hour, early evening. Anthony said he was his son. He was born in Bangalore and has never been to Calcutta.
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