A passage to India in the company of E.M. Forster
Occasional writing is a much neglected and sometimes denigrated genre probably because of the misperception that it is a hold-all for an author’s leftovers or a brave attempt by a friendly editor to milk an author’s notebooks for the last possible paragraph. More often than not, these occasional pieces — essays, musings, poems, sketches, memoirs, recollections — turn out to be little gems. Inspiration need not always work itself out into a novel or even a short story, as is evident in the burgeoning blogging industry. Additionally, the reader has a huge advantage when he picks up a collection of occasional writings: he can dip in where he wants and surface when he likes.
And so it was with Abinger Harvest, a collection of about 80 pieces chosen by E.M. Forster from his contributions to various periodicals, all written before the Second World War. This 1946 reprint, picked off a London street, is a so-called ‘cheap’ edition, cloth-bound in lovely bright orange, covered with a self-effacing grey jacket; why did anyone ever call these editions ‘cheap’? I skirt politely past the essays on the English character, and the ones on the passing events of the mid-War years, and those analysing the various diversions of a dying empire. Promising myself that someday I would return to them, I resist the section on writers: Forster’s views on Conrad and T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Ibsen, T.S. Eliot and Proust. I am trying to find my passage to India through the book and I do not want to be waylaid.
I am not disappointed. In the last section of the book Forster salutes the Orient at Egypt, muses on mosques and museums, tips his hat towards Babur, once “a robber boy, sorely in need of advice…scuttling over the highlands of Central Asia.” This was a central Asia in which his two ancestors, Taimur and Genghiz Khan “had produced between them so numerous a progeny that a frightful congestion of royalties had resulted along the upper waters of the Jaxartes and the Oxus, and in Afghanistan. One could scarcely travel two miles without being held up by an Emperor.” Skimming lightly through these pieces I arrive with Forster at the borders of India.
In a little nugget of a piece, Forster describes a visit to Ujjain in search for the ruins of Vikramaditya’s palace in the dusty plain with its shady groves of trees, random groups of villagers, meandering, unhasty rural tracks. He evokes Kalidas and Shakuntala and stands ankle-deep in the churning water of the Shipra which “gave nothing to the land; no meadows or water weeds edged it. It flowed, like the Ganges of legend, precipitate out of heaven across earth on its way to plunge under the sea and purify hell.” Forster then celebrates Jodhpur, “the land of heroism, where deeds which would have been brutal elsewhere have been touched with glory”. In other incisive pieces he discusses two books by Tagore, the Arjuna-Krishna dialogue on the battlefield and the mind of the Indian princes, seen as allies by the British Government of India “as its own troubles grow and a Gandhi succeeds to a Tilak.”
But my favourite piece emerges when Forster comes “in the silence of the noontide heat….to a secluded glade among low, scrub-covered hills” and finds there a straw-padded enclosure with twines that are “aromatic and lush, with heart-shaped leaves that yearn towards the sun and thrive in the twilight of their aspirations, trained across lateral strings into a subtle and complicated symphony.” There are men “naked and manure-coloured” tending to each delicate tendril and he wonders: “What acolytes, serving what nameless deity?”
The deity, as he finds out when he eats a leaf and his “tongue is stabbed by a hot and angry orange in alliance with pepper”, is none other than Pan, as he spells it. The humble paan or betel leaf made a surprisingly strong impact on early visitors to the East including Marco Polo and Duarte Barbosa, a 16th century Portuguese official in Cochin. Barbosa wrote that in India, the betel “is habitually chewed by both men and women, night and day, in public places and roads by day, and in bed by night, so that their chewing thereof has no pause…It makes the mouth red and the teeth black.” Rather succinctly put!
Forster is critical of Anglo-India, which did not take to paan, regarding its consumption filthy and so un-British. He praises the role paan plays in Indian society: it is a “nucleus for hospitality, and much furtive intercourse takes place under its little shield. One can ‘go to a Pan’, ‘give a Pan’, and so on: less compromising than giving a party, and on to the Pan tea, coffee, ices, sandwiches, sweets, and whisky-sodas can be tacked.” He also alludes to an ‘allowance for Pan’ (but omits the bidi) which is a delicate reference to pin-money. Descriptions of “Pan’s trinity” of ingredients — betel, lime, areca — follow, of which the lime is the “least honourable. Areca, or supari, reminds Forster of iron pyrites and can be alarming when first tasted, but one can get nicely used to it. Cardamom seeds, he observes, are sometimes added and the whole can then be folded up either in the manner of “billet-doux” or fastened at an angle with a clove.
The paan, he instructs, should never be bitten into but taken as a whole and the consequences awaited. The novice when he feels the iron pyrites going under the tongue “rises in disorder, rushes in panic to the courtyard, and spatters shrapnel over bystanders; it is as if the whole mineral kingdom has invaded him under a vegetable veil, for simultaneously the lime starts stinging.” But if he perseveres, then heavenly peace ensues as “the ingredients salute each other, a single sensation is established, and Pan, without ceasing to be a problem, becomes a pleasure. The cardomums crack, the formidable areca yields, splinters vainly takes refuge in the interstices of the gums, and is gone. Warm and cleanly, one’s mouth beats in tune with the infinite, while the harmony, moving within, slowly establishes its reign…”
But if one looks into the mirror, it’s another matter. The result is bright red, inexplicable with green betel, the brown areca and the white lime. There is the danger that “one may forget, go to play bridge at the Club with vermillion jaws and be ruined forever.” Indians, Forster says, who eat paan all the time get red permanently and their teeth blacken”: “Their looks are against them, but their breath is sweet.” There follows a detailed description of the serving of paan , including the various kinds of paan daan or boxes — compartmentalised, circular, rectangular, storeyed, Bidar-made with silver inlay and so on. And a sensuous description of an Indian hostess making a paan — choosy, gracious, whimsical, mysterious. But don’t get me wrong: Forster does not want this to be a foray into the mystery of the East. ‘Pan’ is for all humanity.
The next time I set out for an after-dinner stroll in the fragrant Delhi summer night to the neighbourhood paan shop I will pause a moment before I decide between a meetha or a saada paan. According to Forster, there is also the ‘Comic Pan’, which contains salt and is given to buffoons, and a ‘Tragic Pan’, which contains ground glass and is given to enemies.