Forster’s Times and Our Times: Shashi K Jha

This guest post was sent to us by SHASHI K JHA, an independent researcher.

These days I am reading E. M. Forster’s ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’- one of his last collections of essays. This book is a treat to read as it seems to me a display of the author’s personal memorabilia about people, places, art, literature and discourses around his time. Many of us would well remember one of his essays on India which we read during our school or college days. Yes, I am talking about ‘India Again’ which he wrote in 1946, during his third visit to India after a long gap of 25 years. This essay, along with Pearl S. Buck’s rather less telling travelogue ‘India through a Traveler’s Eye’ was always a favorite pick for our old aged teachers to make us read and reread. For last few days, I was out on a hunting spree to find these two essays again from our old textbooks of our school days which finally ended up on a totally different planet. While the scanned copy of Buck’s essay was e-mailed by one of my jugaadoo friends in Bihar; Forster’s essay was really a challenge to find.

Google had no clue about the essay, but somehow I found a website dedicated to Forster’s work. The website was bounteous enough to provide at least the contents of his works, and fortunately in one of his collection of essays, I found this title ‘India Again’- a book of his essays called ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’. It was already 3 AM, but I couldn’t help trying to get it from the free E-books sites such as Bartleby and Gigapedia. To my disappointment, they only offered some otherwise popular titles by and about Forster, which contained everything but the one I was yenning for. At last my friend Kundan Kumar, who often boasts of being a member of one of the best libraries in Delhi, accepted this challenge. And to uphold the glory of this library, he squandered almost a day to dig out this book from the rusty shelves and the dusty corners of that library. I couldn’t thank him enough for his generosity to go out of the way to save me from the frustration caused by my restlessness and helplessness in buying the book online for rupees two thousands something.

Well, I have been thinking of writing about the joy I gained from reading his essay ‘India Again’ again after almost 11 years; but today I got provoked by another fantastic essay titled ‘The Challenge of Our Time’ from this book. He wrote this essay in 1946 for a broadcast series. 1946, which means just a year after the Second World War. Also by then the ugly face of unbridled capitalism and imperialism had been reasonably uncovered, and at the same time totalitarian disposition and other oppressive byproducts of planned economy had also increasingly started to show up. The essay is such a compulsive read that I wonder what made selectors choose ‘India Again’ over the latter.

When you start reading the essay, if not told earlier, you would hardly know that the essay was written 63 years ago. Interestingly the challenges that Forster and his fellow individuals (Forster was a self-proclaimed Individualist) faced during their times, are still weighing us down in many ways.  I have tried to divide this essay thematically and relate it to our modern day predicaments.

On compensation for something irreplaceable
Read it in the context of displacements, land grabs and SEZs of today. It’s a story the place where Forster himself was brought up as a boy. A story highlighting unofficial aspects of undesired destructions and official compensations. I think the essence of the story will be lost If I narrate or paraphrase it in my own words, so I would like you to read in his own.

“I was brought up as a boy in one of the home counties, in a district which I still think the loveliest in England. There is nothing special about it- it is agricultural land, and could not be described in terms of beauty spots. It must always have looked much the same. I have kept in touch with it, going back to it as to an abiding city and still visiting the house which was once my home, for it is occupied by friends. A farm is through the hedge, and when the farmer there was eight years old and I was nine we used to jump up and down on his grandfather’s straw ricks and spoil them. Today he is a grandfather himself, so that I have the sense of five generations continuing in one place. Life went on as usual until this spring. Then someone who was applying for a permit to lay a water pipe was casually informed that it would not be granted since the whole area had been commandeered. Commandeered for what? Had not the war ended? Appropriate officials of the Ministry of Town and Country Planning now arrived from London and announced that a satellite town for sixty thousand people is to be built. The people now living and working there are doomed; it is death in life for them and they move in a nightmare. The best agricultural land has been taken, they assert; the poor land down by the railway has been left; compensation is inadequate. Anyhow, the satellite town has finished them off as completely as it will obliterate the ancient and delicate scenery. Meteorite town would be a better name. It has fallen out of a blue sky.

“Well,” says the voice of planning and progress, “why this sentimentality? People must have houses.” They must, and I think of working-class friends in north London who have to bring up four children in two rooms, and many are even worse off than that. But I cannot equate the problem. It is a collision of loyalties. I cannot free myself from the conviction that something irreplaceable has been destroyed, and that a little piece of England has died as surely as if a bomb had hit it. I wonder what compensation there is in the world of the spirit for the destruction of the life here, the life of tradition.”

On Intellectual Autonomy and Artistic Freedom
Add it to the arguments and counter-arguments raised about the arrest warrant issued against Ashis Nandy for his take on the character of state and middle class in Gujarat, or Hussain’s paintings which caused him live in a self-imposed exile, or the controversies like whether to use ‘Bombay’ or ‘Mumbai’. More than six decades ago Forster could read these trends prevalent in the so called new economy or modern open societies. Read on what he feels and says.

“What ought the writer, the artist, to do when faced by the Challenge of our Time? Briefly he ought to express what he wants and not what he is told to express by the planning authorities. He ought to impose a discipline on himself rather than accept one from outside. And that discipline may be aesthetic, rather than social or moral: he may wish to practise art for art’s sake. That phrase has been foolishly used and often raises giggle. But it is a profound phrase. It indicates that art is a self-contained harmony. Art is valuable not because it is educational (though it may be), not because it is recreative (though it may be), not because everyone enjoys it (for everybody does not), not even because it has to do with beauty. It is valuable because it has to do with order, and creates little worlds of its own, possessing internal harmony, in the bosom of this disordered planet. It is needed at once and now. It is needed before it is appreciated and independent of appreciation. The idea that it should not be permitted until it receives communal acclaim, and unless it is for all, is perfectly absurd.”

On what should be planned: Bodies or Minds?
Relate it to our dilemmatic antinomies about the kind of system we need today to manage both plenty and starvation, both political freedom and economic justice, both globalization and marginalization, and not to mention the cultural rights and waves of hatred and xenophobia in the context of ‘terrorism’.

So whether the establishment is mandated to control our bodies or minds or spirit, is a question that intrigued Forster most. He finds himself stuck in a quandary of what he says ‘a collision of principles’ or ‘split in one’s loyalties’.  He puts it this way. “We want planning for the body and not for the spirit. But the difficulty is this: where does the body stop and the spirit start?”

He is both optimistic and cautious about ‘the planning’ as well as ‘the new economy’.
He writes, “…but you will gather what a writer who also cares for men and women and for the countryside must be feeling in the world today. Uncomfortable, of course. Sometimes miserable and indignant. But convinced that a planned change must take place if the world is not to disintegrate, and hopeful that in the new economy there may be a sphere both for human relationships and for the despised activity known as art.”

This dichotomy of control over minds and bodies is represented by his arguments about the different roles intellectuals and scientists are expected to play. He naturally has a bias for intellectuals and skepticism towards scientists. He says, “…the intellectual, to my mind, is more in touch with humanity than is the confidant scientist, who patronizes the past, over-simplifies the present, and envisages a future where his leadership will be accepted. Owing to the political needs of the moment, the scientist occupies an abnormal position, which he tends to forget. He is subsidized by the terrified governments who need his aid, pampered and sheltered as long as he is obedient, and prosecuted under Official Secrets Acts when he has been naughty. All this separates him from ordinary men and women and makes him unfit to enter into their feelings. It is high time he came out of his ivory laboratory. We want him to plan for our bodies. We do not want him to plan for our minds, and we cannot accept, so far, his assurance that he will not.”

On what can be a Solution: the New Economy with the Old Morality
With the ever increasing spade of industrialization and uncontrolled movement of finance capital, greed, over-exploitation of nature, internal colonization, acceptable norms of unfair means and violence have been apparently the pointers of moral erosion in a consumerist culture and economy of newly and overly moneyed classes and societies. Forster’s was a time when even the system of modern education was not aware and equipped to even recognize or accept this, let alone devise the means to address it. He is quite reminiscent about his Victorian value system and at one place in this essay he says, “I remember being told as a small boy, “Dear, don’t talk about money, it’s ugly.”

“If we are to answer the Challenge of our Time successfully, we must manage to combine the new economy and the old morality. The doctrine of laissez-faire will not work in the material world. It has led to the black market and the capitalist jungle. We must have planning and ration-books and controls, or millions of people will have nowhere to live and nothing to eat. On the other hand, the doctrine of laissez-faire is the only one that seems to work in the world of spirit; if you plan and control men’s minds you stunt them, you get the censorship, the secret police, the road to serfdom, the community of slaves.”

And what has the ‘New Economy’ and ‘Modern Education’ brought us? The author says, “In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts, and we did not realize that all the time we were exploiting the poor of our own country and the backward races abroad, and getting bigger profits from our investments than we should. We refused to face this unpalatable truth.”

“They (our economic planners) assure us that the new economy will evolve an appropriate morality, and then when all people are properly fed and housed they will have an outlook which will be right, because they are the people. I cannot swallow that. I have no mystic faith in the people. I have in the individual.”

Why this essay, why not ‘India Again’: Politics of Preferences
One can understand the difficulty and risks involved in selecting an essay for a text-book, for it can be a ‘covertly political’ exercise too. I have no doubt that with all his limitations or questionable credibility due to his foreignness (which he himself accepts), Forster’s ‘India Again’ is of a great historical importance, both for its craft and his honest opinions and interesting observations. But with apologies to whomsoever concerned, I really doubt the intellect, motive and choice of the selectors in the text-book making team who chose Forster’s ‘India Again’ over ‘The Challenge of our Time’. They were either too nationalistic (or may even be ghettoistic) to hear about India in a less orientalist tenor by a westerner, or they may have been too busy or egoistic or even biased to appreciate and prefer the latter in the benefit of the generations of students. Because even if the contexts may have changed perceptibly, the challenges of his time and our time remain the same, and that makes this essay all the more relevant for us to read today and ponder over. I, however, do accept that my preference can be equally ‘political’ in the broadest sense of the word.

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