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Sunday, August 15, 1999
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The Empire in its own eyes
By Manohar Malgonkar

IN July 1916, while the great war was raging in Europe, E.M. Forster, who was a conscientious objector, wrote a somewhat indiscreet letter to his friend in Hyderabad, Sayed Ross Masud, in the course of which he revealed how he had done some quite "shameless wirepulling" to counter the efforts of the British authorities "to hoof me into the Army, a disaster that I have hitherto avoided."

In the same letter he also mentions that he had received "a long cable from (the maharaja of) Dewas, asking me to be his private secretary and right hand," but that because he was working for the Red Cross in Egypt which, at the time was a part of the British Empire, he could not accept the offer.

This letter was intercepted by the Raj’s alert censors. The Chief Censor is said to have been ‘scandalised’ by it, and thought fit to send it up to the Political Secretary to the Government of India, J.B. Wood. Wood, for his part was equally scandalised that a man who had indulged in ‘wirepulling’ to keep himself from being drafted in the British army should thus be invited by an Indian maharaja to become his private secretary, and wrote to the official of the Political Department who monitored the affairs of the princely states in Central India, to "give a hint to the maharaja that Forster is not altogether a desirable person".

This official, no doubt equally scandalised, made inquiries from among some British officials who had known E.M. Forster and wrote back reassuringly:

"He is a novelist of some repute, who met the maharaja when he was travelling in India. He is a poor creature... (but there seems to be) no foundation for the suggestion that he is a sexual pervert. He has declined the maharaja’s offer, as he says in his letter, and we shall take steps to see that it is not renewed".

The surprising part is that the vaunted secret agents of the Empire should have been so lax as not to have discovered what was common knowledge in London’s literary circles that Forster was, in fact, a known homosexual or, what the writer of the letter described as "a sexual pervert". Because in that case the reaction of the guardians of the Empire to the prospect of Forster being employed by an Indian maharaja would have been one of shock and horror. Instead of merely showing a determination to armtwist the maharaja of Dewas not to renew his offer of employment, they would, in all probability, have banned Forster from coming to India at all.

To be sure in those days as now, homosexuality was rampant not only among Britain’s poets, writers, painters, musicians and actors, but just as prevalent among the elite of the Empire’s macho services who were idealised by the drumbeaters of the Raj such as Rudyard Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt. But there was a sort of code of honour among the leaders of Britian’s society to pretend that it just did not exist, because discovery imposed obligations that most sahibs shrank from coming to grips with.

This was 1916. Europe was in the grip of a war. This was no time to unearth scandals that would shock society, as it has been shocked 20 years earlier when Britain had sent one of its literary luminaries, Oscar Wilde, to jail for being a homosexual. And only 12 years earlier, the very men who ran the affairs of the Empire had been providentially spared a similar jolt to their system. A senior military officer who had distinguished himself in the war in Sri Lanka, General Hector MacDonald, was accused of the crime of homosexuality. While there was a general consensus among the guardians of the Empire to post MacDonald to some remote part of the world to live out his days in obscurity, Lord Kitchner, the Commander-in-Chief, known for his fierce moustache as for his iron will, was determined that "he should be courtmartialled and shot", as David Gilmour, the biographer of Lord Curzon tells us. The poor man saved a lot of trouble for his colleagues by shooting himself.

One shudders to think what these stern watchdogs of the Empire would have done to E.M. Forster if they had discovered that he was, as they put it, a sexual pervert.... unless of course they were merely pretending not to know to avoid the consequences of such knowledge.

For his part, E.M. Forster had little respect for the sahibs who ran the business of the Empire. His opinion of the species is condensed in his pen portrait of one of its typical officials whom he met in Dewas, a Colonel Adams who, Forster tells us, was "whiskified and fish-faced and obviously a bully", And Adams’s superior, also a Colonel, as being "his inferior in deportment".

They who had sat in judgement over Forster, a Cambridge graduate and a writer of renown, and decided that he was not the sort of person they would countenance as a secretary to an Indian maharaja, were, in Forster’s eyes a tribe of Turtons and Burtons who "specialised in bad manners". Forster, himself fully at ease with Indians, made the condescension of the sahibs towards their subjects the theme of his one great novel, A Passage to India. That novel, which made its author both rich and famous, was greeted by the sahibs of the empire with howls of derision. Gung ho on Kipling’s build up of themselves as the bearers of the White Man’s Burden, they were horrified at this new portrait showing them up as whiskified bullies who had devised a special code of conduct for ruling India that actually made it incumbent upon them to be rude to all Indians because — don’t you know — to be polite to a native was a sure way of making him despise you.

In the year 1903, the viceroy, Lord Curzon, had disallowed the singing of the hymn, Crowns and Thrones may Perish, Kingdoms rise and fall, at the coronation Durbar in Delhi because of his conviction that the British empire would never perish. In 1924, when A Passage to India was published, that empire seemed even more imperishable, for all that it had only another 23 years of life. This was a time when even educated Indians had become resigned to accepting British overlordship as some kind of a blessing. "A Passage", for most Indians who read it, touched the truth of the Imperial presence.

The sahibs, for their part, after their initial chorus of dismay at one of their own authors letting down the side, quickly swept the book aside and pretended that it was the work of a crank, not to be taken seriously. They clung to their own image of themselves as bolstered by Rudyard Kipling, of heroic men glowing with manly virtues, not of the candid-camera shot presented so irreverently by a maverick called E.M. Forster.

To the very last, Rudyard Kipling remained the guru and the inspiration for the sahibs who came to man the Empire’s services. As late as the 1930s, when Phillip Mason joined the I.C.S. young men from Britain’s colleges flocked to India drawn by the heroic deed of Kipling’s Empire builders. Mr Mason himself, who, after his retirement wrote several books on India including his mammoth volume in praise of the purely administrative capabilities and eccentricities of the may of his own calling over nearly 300 years, does not so much as mention the name E.M. Forster in it.Back

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