Forgotten role in Raj quartet

India's Prisoner
November 16, 2001

When Edward J. Thompson published the first of his seven novels about India, An Indian Day (19), the pre-publication hype claimed that it was "a counterblast" to A Passage to India (1924). Thompson had known Forster for a couple of years and indeed had been helped by him to publish, with the Hogarth Press, his polemical historical work provoked by the 1919 Amritsar massacre, The Other Side of the Medal (1925).So he promptly wrote to Forster to dissociate himself from the antagonistic stance. Forster readily granted that authors did not write their own blurbs and ten days later, when he had actually read Thompson's novel, he wrote again to say:

"Certainly it is neither blast nor counterblast, but an individual creation."

Though Thompson is now largely forgotten except for an occasional effort to rescue him somewhat vicariously as the seminally and ideologically influential father of E. P. Thompson, he deserves to be revived as the fourth of the top quartet of Raj novelists, next in interest only to Kipling, Forster and Paul Scott. But unlike any of them, Thompson also made a significant contribution in several other capacities: as a valiant champion of "vernacular" Indian literature, with his translations from Bengali and his two boldly revisionist books on Rabindranath Tagore; as a liberal-radical historian of India and a tireless, sympathetic commentator on India's nationalist evolution during the last three decades of the Raj; and also as a minor political mediator between India and England, especially in 1939 when he was flown out as an unofficial emissary to attempt a bit of shuttle diplomacy between the viceroy on the one hand and Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress Working Committee on the other.

Mary Lago thus had many rich seams to mine for this first book-length study of Thompson, but she oddly disappoints. In the Thompson-Forster "counterblast" episode, for example, which should have been very much her home turf (she published a biography of Forster and co-edited his Selected Letters ), she erroneously says that it was The Other Side of the Medal that was touted as the "counterblast"; she does not quote at all from the Thompson-Forster correspondence cited above; and she shows little interest in discussing An Indian Day as a distinct and "individual creation". The only Indian novel by Thompson she focuses on is A Farewell to India , which earned Thompson the facile eponymous retort from Gandhi that he could never say farewell because he was "India's prisoner".

As many as three Indian novels by Thompson are not once mentioned by Lago, even in the bibliography. Part of the problem seems to be that though Thompson may have been India's prisoner, Lago herself can hardly be convicted of the charge, and seems rather more comfortable dealing with the English than the Indian side of her subject's life. The best portrait in the whole book is that of George Lowther, Thompson's cherished friend from school. Thompson's Methodist upbringing, his English mentors and his various social, institutional and financial difficulties at Oxford are all vividly rendered. But Lago appears hazy on Thompson's Indian years (1910-23), draws on no Indian archive, and by and large ignores the work on Thompson already published by Indian historians and literary critics, often citing passages from E. P. Thompson's works and papers already discussed by them as if she had freshly turned them up. She makes many palpable errors about Indian history, geography and politics (but, even-handedly, she gets wrong the year of E. P. Thompson's birth while dedicating this book to him).

A larger problem lies perhaps with Lago's decision to write a mere life rather than a literary or critical biography, which would have focused equally on Thompson's work. In 1920, when E. P. Thompson was engaged in writing his first book on Tagore, his confidante William Canton advised him: "I hope you will make your book an interweaving of biography and literature. A literary man's life should surely be "as much 'literature' as 'life'." Thompson heeded the advice; Lago does no more than quote it. But her readable book provides a solid foundation on which scholars may base their own rather more literary, political, inter-cultural, theoretically aware, post-colonial revaluation.

Harish Trivedi is professor of English, University of Delhi, India.

India's Prisoner: A Biography of Edward John Thompson 1886-1946

Author - Mary Lago
ISBN - 0 8262 1299 9
Publisher - University of Missouri Press
Price - £33.95
Pages - 338

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