The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 4, 2002

E. M. Forsterís narratives of Ďstates of mindí
Darshan Singh Maini

E.M. Forster: ATribute (With Selections from His Writings on India), Edited & with Introduction
by K. Natwar Singh. Rupa, Pages 169. Price not mentioned.

K. Natwar Singh with E. M. Forster at Cambridge in 1954.
K. Natwar Singh with E. M. Forster at Cambridge in 1954.

OF the British and other foreign writers on India, the name of E.M. Forster remains supreme in a special way. Working as a Private Secretary and tutor to a small princely state, Dwas Senior, during the pink period of the Raj, he retained his authenticity of word and vision in the midst of the Colonel Blimps around him. No wonder, he is one of the most widely read and prescribed authors in Indian universities. And A Passage to India, whose title he owed to that great American poet, Walt Whitman, thus remains an admired classic. Itís not perhaps his best novel; that honour goes to Howardís End (its treatment by the Ivory-Merchant team in a celluloid was redolent of Forsterís softer, flexible world-view) in the opinion of most western critics.

Since K. Natwar Singh, who was Forsterís student of Kingís College, Cambridge, became a close correspondent and a friend, has drawn strict parameters within which to present the genius of Forster. Thus it becomes a somewhat narrow exercise. For instance, he has confined the tribute part to five well-known Indian novelists, and taken no account of considerable scholarly and critical work on him by others, though Forster himself does acknowledge the incisiveness and clarity of V. Shahaneís book on him. Thus, its appeal will remain restricted from the critical point of view.


Before I touch upon the words in praise by the Indian fabulators, I may as well point out that K. Natwar Singh has also taken absolutely no notice of other novelists on India, such as Kipling, John Masters, E.M.H. Myers, Louis Bloomfield, Paul Scott, and Hesman Hesse. And he has nothing to say on the most celebrated of all critical books on Forster ó the one by the great cultural American critic, Lionel Trilling. Of course, K. Natwar Singh had elected to do an extremely limited job and, therefore, could not be faulted as such. Only, the value of the book in question would have increased immensely had he cared to widen his scope.

In my view, Forsterís novels are narratives of what the Bloombury Ďphilosopherí, Moore, called "states of mind". The events, persons and places were needed to hoist a story, but they, in the end, are important only insofar as they light up the inner landscape of the characters. There is a feeling of movement in stillness, of kinetics of ideal that keep baffling against the rigidities of life. Forster is not a genuis of the first order, but his superfine talents and craftsmanship make his novels a rare phenomenon in English fiction.

In Part I, the editor presents a bouquet of tributes by Forsterís friends and fellow writers. Narayana Menon, for instance, highlights the sophisticated nature of Forsterís period novels, and he adds that they are to be read and re-read, and taken in slowly like good wine. He can yet admire Forsterís celebrated statement:"... If I had to choose between my country and betray my friend, I hope I shall have the guts to betray my country." This is what he said in "What I believe".

Raja Rao himself is the best philosophical novelist of India to date and his novel The Serpent and the Rope is metaphysical fabulation of a rare quality. His admiration for Forster, however, rests on Forsterís purity of imagination. "To speak of Forster is, in a way, to speak of a saint", he adds. Also, he admires him for what Forster says on aristocracy:"I believe in aristocracy.... Not an aristocracy of power based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky."

Mulk Raj Anandís tribute is in the epistolary form and excudes warmth and consanguinity. "Perhaps your acceptance of the frank, open, sophisticated cultures of the intelligentsia of India of your time be taken as genuine regard for the fact that some of the best values are inherited from a cultivated past," concludes Anand. He also admires Forsterís ĎHellenismí and ĎRenaissanceí spirit of aesthetics and beauty.

Santha Rama Rau converted A Passage to India into a successful Broadway play and Forster acknowledges its skill. There is little else of note in Santha Rama Rauís tribute. K. Natwar Singhís own piece and his mentorís letters to him from Cambridge add to the note of warmth that pervades all tributes.

Does Forster lean toward Islam because of its rich Arabic heritage? He seems to do so, though its "orderliness"(monolithic fundamentalism in todayís lexicon) distresses him. Again, the amorphousness of Hinduism and its archaic elements dismay Forster, though heís keenly aware of "the Eternal India". Whether India is a "mystery" or a "muddle" remains unresolved. Forsterís meaningful ambivalence abides.