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 neighbourhoods.
I think I was around 12 years old when I first saw Menen either in or outside Trivandrum’s British Library. 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?
In the 1980s, Trivandrum — it had not yet become Thiruvananthapuram — was still the sort of place where everyone just about knew everyone else or at least knew of everyone else! 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.
Most often, I’d come across Menen in or near the British Library. Sometimes, I’d also see him making his way home, to his rooms in Lukes Lane just off the city’s arterial M G Road. On some of these jaunts he’d be accompanied by Graham Hall, his companion.
I never actually spoke to him. Nor did I read any of his work then, though I have faint memories of a couple of his books gracing the shelves of the British Library.
And then one day in 1989, I read in the papers that Menen had died. Hall, about whom I knew very little, continued in Trivandrum and I often used to spot him in the British Library. In the late 1990s though, I left Trivandrum and when I returned some years later, there was no sign of Hall. Memories of both Menen and Hall receded into the corners of my mind.
But it all came rushing back to me a few days ago when I found Classic Aubrey Menen, a new Penguin anthology of his work. In an interesting coincidence, Jai Arjun Singh over at Jabberwock has also written about Penguin’s Menen anthology.
I’ve since discovered that Menen wore many hats — radio person, ad type, essayist, satirist, travel writer, drama critic and theatre director among others. Over the years, he wrote some 20-odd works of fiction and non-fiction including Rama Retold, an interpretation of the Ramayana.
Menen’s Ramayana, it seems, irked Indian sensibilities and was banned in the country for some years. And I’m not surprised. For the little I’ve seen of his work reveals that Menen’s humour is subtle yet biting.
He pulls no punches when it comes to making fun of holy cows. Whether it is India’s caste system and Brahmin notions of superiority in A Conspiracy of Women or cardinals and politicians in The Fig Tree — all of them get the Menen treatment. Yet, his is not the ‘a laugh every other line’ sort of humour. It is multi-layered, quirky and not always apparent at first glance.
Consider, for instance, this gem that appeared in the 1987 edition of the Mar Ivanios College magazine. Asked, during the course of an interview, whether writers are born or made, Menen responded: “All writers are made writers, but in fact they are born. Journalists can be made, but not creative writers.”
As Menen’s New York Times obit says:
“Asked to give advice to writers, Mr. Menen, who was admired as a satirist, told the publication Contemporary Authors that '’the aspiring writer should perform a daily physical exercise. He should sit on his bottom in front of a table equipped with writing materials,' he said. 'If his top end fails him, at least his nether end won't.'”
Humour like that, though cutting, is priceless not in the least for its ability to make us laugh at ourselves, at least once in a while. As Menen himself reportedly said: “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.”
While satire was, perhaps, his forte, Menen was also a bit of a visionary it seems. In the Mar Ivanios College magazine interview, he observed: “The West will turn to the Indian mind for the solution of its problems.” I wonder if he had outsourcing in mind when he said this.