By: Christel R Devadawson
Book: Arctic Summer
Author: Damon Galgut
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 335 pages
Price: Rs 595
Damon Galgut develops Arctic Summer on the premise that it is possible to analyse a novel through a study of relevant encounters between its author and people, or places that seem to matter throughout the period of its construction. The novel in question is A Passage to India, and we might argue that this novel becomes the protagonist of Galgut’s text. Galgut looks at six relationships that its author Edward Morgan Forster developed in the first two decades of the 20th century before publishing it in 1924. Galgut fictionalises biography, so that we see Forster the novelist as he stumbles through meetings with Kenneth Searight and Edward Carpenter in England, Mohammed el Adl in Egypt, Syed Ross Masood (the dedicatee of A Passage to India) in England and India, and finally Bapu Sahib, the Maharaja of Dewas. Galgut explores the central mystery of A Passage to India and its tortuous route to publication, through his evocation of Forster’s complicated sense of his homosexuality, and also through an attempt to understand the complicated network of relationships, places and texts in Forster’s life.
We are now used to texts that fictionalise biographies of 19th and early-20th century figures to probe contemporary anxieties regarding the politics of gender and class. Gyles Brandreth’s series of whodunits with Oscar Wilde as detective is the most recent example of this kind. What does Galgut achieve, however, by fictionalising biography? Furbank’s 1977 Forster continues to be a sensitive and experimental character, particularly in terms of gender politics. Beauman’s 1993 Forster holds the door open to studies of racial and national rootedness. In contrast, Galgut’s work takes the reader through intense homoerotic encounters without the effort of biography to contextualise its subject and also without the effortlessness of fiction that tells its story. How does the reader escape the role of voyeur and how can the writing escape the label of pornography? Two characters achieve dignity. They are Mohammed el Adl, the Alexandrian bus-conductor whose poverty does not blunt his wit, and Bapu Sahib, whose royal lineage does not dull his intelligence. The others, particularly Galgut’s Forster are, at best, embarrassingly exhibitionistic.
The textual politics of Galgut’s work is even more unacceptable. When we read that “Flesh was generally more visible in India than at home: that was the way they did things out there,” — a comment made by a British officer travelling out to India in 1911 — we look in vain for authorial intervention. Again, when we read of Forster’s fear that he might brutalise himself as well as the Indian servant with whom he enters into a relationship, because “all the force of the Empire had filled him for a second,” we wonder how Galgut as author is silent. Forster handles this episode in a memoir of the time, and Furbank discusses it as well. How does a 2014 text retrieve this experience without a more serious awareness of its political charge? Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) is a nuanced look through fiction at the complexities of history. JR Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday (1932) is an uninhibited romp with some sharp political insights into the courts of princely India. David Lean’s A Passage to India (1984) returns to Forster’s novel from Thatcherite Britain. This reviewer can find no place for Galgut’s Forster, based apparently on dangerously unexamined assumptions about the politics of race and gender.
The writer is a professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi