EM Forster: 'But for Masood, I might never have gone to India'
Most writers battle with periods of being blocked; it's almost an occupational hazard. But in the writing of his last and greatest novel, A Passage to India, EM Forster got stuck for nine years. Now that is unusual. The book took him 11 years in total to complete, which means the actual physical work – setting the words down on the page – lasted two years. All the rest was hesitation.
What tripped him up so badly? We may never know. There were two areas of his life, physical intimacy and writing, which Forster kept highly private. For the rest, his diaries and letters are full of self-examination, giving the impression of somebody free with his emotions. But he shared his sexual secrets with very few people, and in his journals he usually recorded such matters in a very oblique way. His writing he hardly mentions at all.
At the time that he embarked on A Passage, Forster was at a curious point in his creative life. All of his other published novels were written in a flurry between 1905 and 1910. He had published some short stories too, but there are strong indications that his novelistic impulses were running dry. He had started a new one, which he called "Arctic Summer", in 1911, but it had already stalled before he set out on his first visit to India and it would never be completed.
His motive for going to India was to see Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man whom he'd befriended in 1906 and with whom he was deeply in love. The affection was lopsided: Forster had twice declared his feelings, but Masood was straight and couldn't reciprocate. Nevertheless, the two men were close, and when Masood completed his legal studies and returned to India, Forster followed a few months later.
By then, the country had already started to exercise his imagination. Masood had talked about it with Forster and had put the idea into his head of writing an Indian novel. It was enough of a possibility for Forster to have mentioned it to his publisher before he left. From the outset, the notion of an Indian novel was inseparable from Masood. "But for him," Forster reflected years later, "I might never have gone to his country, or written about it … I didn't go there to govern it or to make money or to improve people. I went there to see a friend."
He was in India for six months, from October 1912 to April 1913. He travelled a huge amount in that time, covering a lot of ground and meeting a great many people. It's easy to pick up, in his letters and diaries, how stirred he was by his experiences. And, unsurprisingly, a great deal of what he saw and heard went straight into his book. In Simla he attended an "advanced" Muslim wedding where men prayed at one end of a veranda while a gramophone played a silly English song at the other. In Lahore he was introduced to a Mr Godbole, who talked to him about ragas and sang to him as they walked through the public gardens. In Hyderabad, a friend of Masood's lost his temper and had an outburst against the English: "It may be 50 or 500 years, but we shall turn you out." Anybody familiar with A Passage to India will recognise these and many other moments.