Frontline Volume 19 - Issue 18, August 31 - September 13, 2002
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Of a novelist and a friend

A.K. DAMODARAN

E.M. Forster: A Tribute, edited and with an introduction by K. Natwar Singh; Rupa and Co., New Delhi, 2002; pages 169, Rs.150.

THIS is a new edition of a book of tributes to E.M. Forster, supplemented by a very small selection of his own writings in the Indian context, originally published with Forster's satisfied approval in 1964. The book was edited by K. Natwar Singh, a very young Indian diplomat, who had established a unique relationship with the great man during his student days in Cambridge. It will be recalled that Forster spent two-thirds of the latter part of his life as a Fellow in King's College, Cambridge. The new edition contains a little additional material, primarily in the form of Forster's brief business-like but highly evocative letters to Natwar Singh during the 10 years from 1954 to 1964.

The book has been structured in three sections. The first division contains tributes to Forster by six of his Indian friends. This is followed by a brief anthology of small pieces on India written by Forster over the decades. A contemporary effect is produced by the editor's introduction, which incorporates a brief record of a conversation he had with Forster in 1962.


K. Natwar Singh with E.M. Forster.

Among the Indian admirers of Forster who expressed their appreciation of his genius, V.K. Narayana Menon, Ahmed Ali and Mulk Raj Anand write about their impressions of a very distinguished man who knew them, appreciated their abilities and helped them, if necessary. Mulk Raj Anand's novel The Untouchable written in the 1930s, had been rejected by many publishers until Forster stepped in. Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi was also rejected by British publishers, again in the 1930s, because of its "tactless" references to the Mutiny. Here again, Forster was able to make a difference. Narayana Menon met him during his BBC days in London during the War along with George Orwell. Like many other contributors to this compilation, Menon quotes Forster's celebrated statement just before the War that he would, given the option, choose to betray his country rather than his friend. This passage has been sometimes misinterpreted. It was not an anxious desire to commit treason. It is an assertion of the individual's right of moral choice at a moment when the state is aggressive in its attempt to control its subjects. It reflects the attitude of the anguished intellectual at a time of invasive authoritarianism. We can see the same approach in Bertrand Russell's Reith Lectures - The Authority and the Individual - published about 10 years later, after the War. Narayana Menon also recollects Forster's reference to the Bible when the anguished father of a sick boy cries out to Jesus: "Help Thou my unbelief." It is these passages which made Forster's essay on 'What I Believe' nothing less than an individual's liberal manifesto. On a very personal note this reviewer recalls with some nostalgia teaching this essay to his college students in Delhi University in 1949. Narayana Menon has a delightful passage about Forster's interest in music. He has a long quotation from Howard's End which brings out the novelist's excitement about Beethoven.

Ahmed Ali's essay contains insights into Forster as a personal friend. Forster took a great deal of interest in the situation of his young friend after Partition when his family went to Pakistan. He was particularly interested in the loneliness of the young author's mother in Karachi.

SANTHA RAMA RAU is a late-comer into the scene like Natwar Singh. In the early 1960s she wanted to write a play based on A Passage to India. She explains the problems she had in trying to persuade Forster to agree to the proposal. The author of Aspects of the Novel was sceptical about merging narrative fiction with drama. He was finally persuaded, and the play was produced in New York and became a success. This was the beginning of the series of plays and films based on the Forster opus with which Rau was involved years after Forster passed away in 1970.

It would be interesting to know what Forster's real views were as a confirmed purist in novel writing, about John Galsworthy's plays and Thomas Hardy's poetry!

The Raja Rao piece is sui generis. Their relationship also has its beginnings in the 1930s. It is a dense rich piece of writing bringing in Hindu spiritual writings and the Russian classics into the discussion. It also has a charming interlude about his attempts to persuade Forster to visit him in Trivandrum in south India. Forster was too tired by then to make long journeys.


The selection from Forster's own writings with an Indian interest has been carefully made by Natwar Singh. Two pieces are of special interest. There is a charming description of his last visit to India in 1945, just after the War was over, to attend the PEN conference in Jaipur. (PEN denotes (the International Association of) Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists). There is an essay on the native states and their policies written during the 1920s based on his experience as an insider of the Royal Court in the princely state of Dewas Senior. This contains delightful vignettes of the experimental constitutions launched by rulers of various native states in the period immediately after the Montague-Chelmsford Reforms.

This leads to an interesting discussion of the new chamber of princes also. The vital fact about these comments upon the Indian princely world is their startling relevance even today, decades after the institutions disappeared. There is also a charming little tribute to Gandhi after his death - sincere, unpretentious and useful even today. Forster notes that Gandhi "was accustomed to regard an interruption as an instrument" and saw death, which had come to him so suddenly and interrupted his activities, as "the supreme interruption as an instrument and, perhaps, the supreme one". This shows remarkable insight on the part of someone who was certainly not overly interested in the Mahatma. Perhaps Gandhiji saw Chauri Chaura as an interruption which became an instrument in the development of satyagraha.

Both in his original and effective decision to persuade Forster to accept this tribute and his selection of the contributors to this anthology, Natwar Singh has shown a delicate sensibility. That is why the book reads as fresh today as it was when first released to the reading public in 1964. This book projects the Forster of the novels and the Forster of the essays as one of the central figures of the 20th century. In a well-known passage Rose Macaulay wrote that Forster's books "project an exquisite and animated crowd of beings... all set in the silver-point world of their creator's civilised irony". This succeeds in conveying an impression of the artistic quality of Forster's writings which can only be described as literary pointillism.

Natwar Singh's collection, in the easiest and most pleasant manner possible, has been able to illustrate the central quality of Forster's genius as a novelist and as a friend of India.

There is, of course, much more to Forster than the Indian connection - his great and continuing interest in Italy and France, his fascination with the beauty of the English landscape. He loved India and Indians, reciprocated their admiration in good measure. But unlike Rudyard Kipling, he was interested in many matters other than India's politics, culture and unique social fabric.


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