Damon Galgut must have sensed Forster’s morbid alienation in taking on the task of a fictionalised biography of that author and highlights it by giving it the title of his unfinished novel of the same title. I confess I am not a great fan of Forster and have found ‘Passage to India’ the work that most typifies his (for me) tiresome hesitancy.
Oddly, I found so much more to enjoy in Galgut’s work. Yes, there is the some of the sense of painful apartness and indecision that typifies his Indian novel but Galgut manages to make Forster’s position somewhat clearer and certainly fleshes out in more interesting detail his hoped-for Indian lover Syed Ross Masood and lavishes time and energy on the bizarre and odd life he experienced at the court of the Maharajah of Dewas, Tukojirao III. All along, the inequalities of social life and sexual life for an Imperial Brit are made clear and become one of the foundations of Forster’s relationship problems. This is an interesting insight as well as a reading of the changes working their way through the emerging Indian nation at that time. Fascinating stuff – especially in the differing standards applied to his sex life in the palace with the barber. Even the tiresome Marabar caves are presented in a more interesting and understandable light.
A far more complete and engaging section of the book traces his relationship with the Egyptian tram driver Mohammed el-Adl and life in Alexandria. Once again, Galgut manages to put more colourful flesh on the bones of this doomed relationship which Forster pursued for 17 long years in the face of a mixture of love, acceptance, indifference and veiled extortion. I enjoyed the introduction and use of the poet C. V. Cavafy as something of a foil for Forster’s experiences. Whatever you can say about Forster he was always loyal to his relationships however illusory they might be. He certainly was consistent after finding his long term relationship back in England with his police constable Bob Buckingham on similar terms of sharing with another. All this reinforces our awareness of how difficult it was any gay man to create and maintain a relationship in Forster’s time, though some certainly managed it.
Once again, typical of his time, the network of financial imperatives, the impact of relatives and social requirements is highlighted in his relationship with his mother – once again loving yet claustrophobic and smothering. It makes it understandable why India might look attractive. On the other hand, Forster was free to use his energies in other literary and teaching directions and he certainly made his contribution in those respects.