Memoirs - PREFACE BY W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM
by W. Somerset Maugham
I HAVE KNOWN the Aga Khan for many years. He has been a kind and helpful friend. The introductions he gave me when I spent a winter in India enabled me to profit by the rich experience of my sojourn in that wonderful country as otherwise I could never have done, so that when he paid me the compliment of asking me to write a preface to his autobiography I was glad to be given the opportunity to do him this small, and really unnecessary, service. For the book speaks for itself. It was not till I had read it that it was borne upon me how difficult a task I was undertaking. The Aga Khan has led a full life. He has been a great traveler and there are few parts of the world that he has not visited either for pleasure or because his political and religious interests made it necessary. He has been a great theater goer; he has loved the opera and the ballet. He is an assiduous reader. He has been occupied in affairs in which the fate of nations was involved. He has bred horses and raced them. He has been on terms of close friendship with kings and princes of the blood royal, maharajahs, viceroys, field marshals, actors and actresses, trainers, golf professionals, society beauties and society entertainers. He has founded a university. As head of a widely diffused sect, the Ismailis, he has throughout his life sedulously endeavored to further the welfare, spiritual and material, of his countless followers. Toward the end of this autobiography he remarks that he has never once been bored. That alone is enough to mark the Aga Khan out as a remarkable man.
I must tell the reader at once that I am incompetent to deal with some of his multifarious activities. I know nothing of racing. I am so little interested in it that one day when I was lunching with the Aga Khan just before Tulyar won the Derby we talked only of India and I never thought of asking him whether his horse had a chance of winning. I know no more of politics than the ordinary newspaper reader. For long years the Aga Khan was intimately concerned with them. His advice was constantly sought, and it was generally sound. He believed in moderation: "Of one fact," he writes, "my years in public life have convinced me; that the value of a compromise is that it can supply a bridge across a difficult period, and later having employed it it is often possible to bring into effect the fullscale measures of reform which, originally, would have been rejected out of hand." He knew well the statesmen on whose decisions during the last fifty years great events depended. It is seldom he passes a harsh judgment on them. He pays generous tribute to their integrity, intelligence, patriotism, wide knowledge and experience. It seems strange that with these valuable qualities they should have landed us all in the sorry mess in which we now find ourselves.
The Aga Khan is a charitable man, and it goes against his grain to speak ill of others. The only occasion in this book of his on which he betrays bitterness is when he animadverts on the behavior of our countrymen in their dealings with the inhabitants of the countries in which in one way and another they held a predominant position, in Egypt and India and in the treaty ports of China. During the eighties relations between British and Indians were in general easy, amiable and without strain, and had they continued to be as they were then, "I greatly doubt,"he writes, "whether political bitterness would have developed to the extent it did, and possibly something far less total than the severance of the Republic of India from the Imperial connection would have been feasible." It is a disquieting thought. He goes on as follows: "What happened to the Englishman has been to me all my life a source of wonder and astonishment. Suddenly it seemed that his prestige as a member of an imperial, governing race would be lost if he accepted those of a different color as fundamentally his equals. The color bar was no longer thought of as a physical difference, but far more dangerously -- in the end disastrously -as an intellectual and spiritual difference.... The pernicious theory spread that all Asiatics were a second-class race, and 'white men' possessed some intrinsic and unchallengeable superiority." According to the Aga Khan the root-cause of the attitude adopted by the ruling class was fear and a lack of inner self-confidence. Another was the presence in increasing numbers of British wives with no knowledge of or interest in the customs and outlook of Indians. They were no less narrow and provincial when forty years after the time of which the Aga Khan writes I myself went to India. These women who for the most part came from modest homes in the country and, since taxation was already high, had at the most a maid of all work to do the household chores found themselves in spacious quarters, with a number of servants to do their bidding. It went to their heads. I remember having tea one day with the wife of a not very important official. In England she might have been a manicurist or a stenographer. She asked me about my travels and when I told her that I had spent most of my time in the Indian States, she said: "You know, we don't have anything more to do with Indians than we can help. One has to keep them at arm's length."
The rest of the company agreed with her.
The clubs were barred to Indians till by the influence of Lord Willingdon some were persuaded to admit them, but so far as I could see, it made little difference since even in them white and colored kept conspicuously apart.
When I was in Hyderabad the Crown Prince asked me to lunch. I had spent some time in Bombay and was then on my way to Calcutta.
"I suppose you were made an honorary member of the Club when you were in Bombay," he said, and when I told him I was, he added: "And I suppose you'll be made an honorary member of the Club at Calcutta?"
"I hope so," I answered.
"Do you know the difference between the Club at Bombay and the Club at Calcutta?" he asked me. I shook my head. "In one they don't allow either dogs or Indians; in the other they do allow dogs."
I couldn't for the life of me think what to say to that.
But it was not only in India that these unhappy conditions prevailed.
In the foreign concessions in China there was the same arrogant and hidebound colonialism and the general attitude toward the Chinese was little short of outrageous. "All the best hotels refused entry to Chinese, except in wings specially set aside for them. It was the same in restaurants. From European clubs they were totally excluded. Even in shops a Chinese customer would have to stand aside and wait to be served when a European or an American came in after him and demanded attention." Lord Cromer was the British Resident when the Aga Khan went to Egypt. He found the British were not merely in political control of the country, but assumed a social superiority which the Egyptians appeared humbly to accept. "There was no common ground of social intercourse. Therefore inevitably behind the façade of humility there developed a sullen and brooding, almost personal, resentment which later on needlessly, bitterly, poisoned the clash of Egyptian nationalism with Britain's interests as the occupying power." Now that the foreign concessions in China exist no more, now that the last British soldiers are leaving Egypt, now that, as the Aga Khan puts it, British rule in India has dissolved and passed away like early morning mist before strong sunlight, the British have left behind them a legacy of hatred. We too may ask ourselves what happened to Englishmen that caused them so to act as to arouse an antagonism which was bound in the end to have such untoward consequences. I am not satisfied with the explanation which the Aga Khan gives. I think it is to be sought rather in that hackneyed, but consistently disregarded aphorism of Lord Acton's: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is no good crying over spilt milk, so the determinists tell us, and if I have dwelt on this subject it is with intention. In the world of today the Americans occupy the position which the British so long, and for all their failings not ingloriously, held. Perhaps it would be to their advantage to profit by our example and avoid making the errors that have cost us so dearly. A brown man can fire a Sten gun and shoot as straight as a white man; a yellow man can drop an atom bomb as efficiently. What does this mean but that the color bar is now a crass absurdity? The British wanted to be loved and were convinced that they were; the Americans want to be loved too, but are uneasily, distressingly, conscious that they are not. They find it hard to understand. With their boundless generosity they have poured money into the countries which two disastrous wars have reduced to poverty and it is natural that they should wish to see it spent as they think fit and not always as the recipients would like to spend it. It is true enough that the man who pays the piper calls the tune, but if it is a tune the company finds it hard to dance to, perhaps he is well-advised to do his best so to modify it that they find it easy. Doubtless it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is also more hazardous, for you put the recipient of your bounty under an obligation and that is a condition that only the very magnanimous can accept with good will. Gratitude is not a virtue that comes easily to the human race. I do not think it can be denied that the British conferred great benefits on the peoples over which they ruled; but they humiliated them and so earned their hatred. The Americans would do well to remember it.
But enough of that. The Aga Khan is descended from the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and is descended also from the Fatimite Caliphs of Egypt. He is justifiably proud of his illustrious ancestry. His grandfather, also known as Aga Khan, by inheritance spiritual head of the Ismailis, was a Persian nobleman, son-in-law of the powerful monarch, Fateh Ali Shah and hereditary chieftain of Kerman. Smarting under an insult that had been put upon him he took up arms against a later Shah, Mohammed by name, was worsted and forced to make his escape, attended by a few horsemen, through the deserts of Baluchistan to Sind. There he raised a troop of light horse and after various vicissitudes eventually reached Bombay with his two hundred horsemen, his relations, clients and supporters. He acquired a vast estate upon which he built palaces, innumerable smaller houses for his dependents and outbuildings, gardens and fountains. He lived in feudal state and never had less than a hundred horses in his stables. He died when the author of this book was a child and was succeeded by his son who, however, only survived him a short time, upon which the Aga Khan whom we know, at the age of eight, inherited his titles, wealth and responsibilities, spiritual and temporal. His education was conducted to prepare him for the sacred charge to which he was born. He was taught English, French, Arabic and Persian. Religious instruction was imparted to him by a renowned teacher of Islamic lore. No holidays were allowed him. The only relief from work was on Saturdays and feast days when he received his followers who came to offer gifts and do him homage.
The Aga Khan, raised to such eminence at so early an age, was fortunate in that his mother was a highly cultivated woman. She was deeply versed in Persian and Arabic poetry, as were several of her ladies in waiting, and at mealtimes at her table "our conversation was of literature, of poetry; or perhaps one of the elderly ladies who traveled to and from Teheran a great deal would talk about her experiences at the Court of the Shah." The Begum was a mystic and habitually spent a great deal of time in prayer for spiritual enlightenment and union with God. "I have, in something near ecstasy," he writes, "heard her read perhaps some verses by Roumi or Hafiz, with their exquisite analogies between man's beatific vision of the Divine and the temporal beauty and colors of flowers, the music and magic of the night, and the transient splendors of the Persian dawn." The Aga Khan is a deeply religious man. One of the most interesting chapters in this book is that in which after telling of his personal beliefs, he gives a concise exposition of Islam as it is understood and practiced today. It is there for the reader to read and I will say no more about it than that it is sympathetic and persuasive. It may be that it will occur to him that the duties of man as he may learn them from the verses of the Koran and the Traditions of the Prophet are not very different from those he may learn from the Sermon on the Mount. But man is an imperfect creature, at the mercy of his passions, and it should surprise no one that too often these duties are no more practiced by Muslim than by Christian.
The general public knows the Aga Khan chiefly as a racing man and it is not unlikely that the reader of the book, remembering pages in which he narrates his experiences as a breeder of bloodstock and the happy winner of many classical events, will be a trifle taken aback by this moving, thoughtful and sincere chapter. There is no reason why he should be. The chase was the main occupation of the Iranian nobles from which he is descended. It is part of the tradition he inherited and the environment in which he was brought up. His grandfather, his father, had hounds, hawks and horses, the swiftest and finest money could buy or they could breed. On the death of his father only twenty or thirty of the ninety race horses he had possessed were kept and they, through the Aga Khan's minority, were raced under his colors all over Western India. Racing is in his blood. But first and foremost he is the spiritual head of a sect of Islam which counts its adherents by the million. He has a secure belief in the faith which was the faith of his great ancestors and he is ever mindful of the sacred charge, with the great responsibilities it entails, which is his by right of birth. We are none of us all of a piece. The Aga Khan says somewhere that we are all composed of diverse and conflicting elements: of few men could this be more truly said than of himself. But he is fortunate in that the elements in him only superficially conflict; they are resolved by the strength and consistency of his character.
I MUST RECORD my deep and warm gratitude to my old friend, Mr. Somerset Maugham, for the foreword which he has been kind enough to write for this book, and for the agreeable and gracious observations that he has made. To Miss Merioneth Whitaker go my thanks for her invaluable skill and patience in the preparation of the manuscript, without which it would have been a far more arduous labor.
A recent portrait of His Highness the Aga Khan.
A recent portrait of Her Highness the Begum Aga Khan.
The Aga Khan's grandfather, Aga Khan I.
Aly Shah, the Aga Khan's father.
Her Highness Lady Aly Shah, mother of the Aga Khan.
The Aga Khan as a young boy.
At his installation as Imam, the Aga Khan ascends the Gadi (the seat of office) in Bombay in 1885.
The Aga Khan as a young man.
A portrait of the Aga Khan taken during the reign of George V. Created G.C.I.E. in 1902, he is shown wearing the Badge of the Order of the Indian Empire.
The Aga Khan with his younger son, Prince Sadruddin, and his two grandsons, Prince Karin Aga and Prince Amyn Mahomed.
The Aga Khan leads in Blenheim, winner of the 1930 Derby (Associated Press).
With Mahatma Gandhi and Mrs. Sarojani Naidu in London during the Round Table Conference of 1931 (Planet News).
The Aga Khan's being weighed against diamonds at his Diamond Jubilee celebration in Bombay, 1946. The diamonds are in plastic boxes on the scale (Associated Press).
With the Begum Aga Khan and Prince Sadruddin at the Diamond Jubilee celebration.