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Asian Culture Vulture: An Interview with Damon Galgut

Date: Aug 15 2014

One of the great novels on British India, EM Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ has inspired South African novelist Damon Galgut to peer further into a much-troubled soul…

HE APPEARS an unlikely agitator for Indian Independence: white, quintessentially English, and rather patrician and shy.

And yet EM Forster’s “A Passage to India” was an acute and highly critical reading of the state of colonial relations, for its time in 1924.

The novel may not have been an outright condemnation of British Imperial rule, and few would probably ever class Forster as an ‘anti-Imperialist’, but it was clear that he more than entertained the idea (if nothing else at the time), that India could, and should, be free to rule itself, in some other time than his own.

Fast forward 90 years and “A Passage to India” has inspired twice Booker shortlisted South African writer Damon Galgut’s latest novel, “Arctic Summer”.

Galgut appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 9-25), alongside other novelists and commentators on Asian/Indian subjects*.

“India interested me first,” he told “I’ve been there 12 times, sometimes for six months at a stretch.

“Then a ‘A Passage to India’ took my imagination again, and only then Forster.

“The story of how he came to write the book, and what went into it, socially and historically and emotionally, seized hold of me. It spoke for me, in certain respects. I wanted to give a voice to it.”

Galgut does something very interesting and hugely imaginative – he recreates Forster’s world, and plunges the reader into Edwardian England, and picks up Forster’s own story, as he journeys to India in 1912.

By this time, Forster was already a successful writer and was making the trip to see his close friend and one-time pupil, Syed Ross Masood.

Forster, like many writers, was a complicated creature – deeply intelligent, thoughtful, and slightly unhappy.

Though he had a flourishing and ever accumulating reputation, as one of the country’s foremost writers, his personal life was beset by troubles – his attraction to men was largely concealed and hidden. It had to be.

It was a subject that could not be openly broached – Oscar Wilde had gone to prison less than 20 years before and society was deeply opposed to even the notion that one man could love another, emotionally and/or just physically.

Galgut explores Forster’s interior life and connects it to the construction of “A Passage to India” and focuses on the way the writer felt about Masood, and the 21st century writer was aided in this by the letters and diaries Forster left behind.

Galgut though makes the point (in this article) that Forster did not write much about his sex life or lack of it, or about what inspired his own fiction.

The precise contours of the ‘unconsummated’ friendship or rebuffed ‘physical intimacy’ with Masood is central to ideas that fired “A Passage to India”, believes Galgut.

“The relationship is certainly at the core of my book,” responded Galgut.” It connects with the writing of ‘A Passage to India’ and that’s the real subject, for me.

“People think they know the story, but they don’t, not really. Its narrative lies in the tiny details, the ebb and flow, and mostly it’s easily summed up (and dismissed) as ‘an unrequited love’.

“Which it was, of course, but it was a great deal more besides. How many unrequited loves give rise to great novels?

“Forster’s disappointment was a great gain for literature. No consolation to him, I’m sure,” concluded Galgut in an email answer to a question from

What again is interesting and allows Galgut a certain licence is that it took Forster nine years to complete “A Passage to India”, having made a start on it after his trip.

In the intervening period, he wrote other things, but could only complete his ‘Indian novel’ following a second year-long stay in India on an administrative assignment in 1922.

Galgut believes the ambiguity of what happened in the Marabar Caves in “A Passage to India” is central to a lot of things, both in the book itself and the life outside it – which drove it.

In a “Passage to India” the central incident involves Adele, a young British woman (who is betrothed to Ronny Heaslop, a local magistrate and a pillar of the Raj) and Dr Aziz, a refined physician with pro-Independence leanings.

There is a seeming attraction between Adele and Dr Aziz, but this is shattered after the two embark on a sightseeing trip to the caves and the young British woman accuses the doctor of sexual assault.

Eventually, she withdraws the allegation and says that she was confused and disorientated in the heat and dark, and absolves Dr Aziz – but the damage is done, and the British feel she has “gone soft on the natives” and has betrayed the principles of the Raj they expect to be upheld.

Galgut cautions against any direct readings of the uneasy relationship between Forster and Masood mirroring Adele’s and Aziz’s.

“I suspect the process (of writing) was very unconscious, in large part.

“Forster’s way of coming to terms with his failed relationships usually involved letting go of his hopes. Not the best solution, perhaps.

“I do think the caves episode in his novel was very central not only to his narrative but also to his friendship with Masood, and I believe that’s what he got stuck on for so long.

“Working things out elsewhere in his life freed him enough to work out that plot point too.”

It also did not mean too that Forster had come to some real accommodation with his homosexuality, expresses Galgut.

“That (the writing of ‘A Passage to India’) is not the same as coming to terms with his sexuality, which I don’t think he ever quite managed to do, at least not in an open way.”

In other ways, what fascinated Forster was interracial relationships and whether they were possible or even sustainable in such an unequal society or racially divided environment.

Of course, that brings us to the question of South Africa and a society more vividly and recently governed by ideas of racial superiority and purity.

“Mixed race relationships are not a big deal here any longer, at least not in the circles I know,” wrote Galgut. “I suppose it might become an issue with families and friends, depending on their outlook, but in the larger social sense you see it a fair bit and nobody much cares. Why should they?

“It all underscores what I perceive to be South Africa’s new divides, which are not about race but about class.

“People mix racially as long as they belong to the same class, but what you don’t get, and what people have big antipathy towards, are relationships across class barriers. Much like India in that respect, I guess. That’s a whole other challenge.”

The Indian reaction to “Arctic Summer” has “mostly been very thoughtful and engaged”, Galgut reported. “I hope to get a better sense when I go there for festivals in Madras and Jaipur in January.”

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