‘Love was the longing across an insuperable barrier’

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A biographical novel reconstructs the years it took to write A Passage to India. Excerpts
Arctic Summer | Damon Galgut | Aleph Book Company | 352 pages | Rs 595
India had encroached on the edge of Morgan’s mind before now, not a place so much as an idea. It had become a tradition for Kingsmen to join the Indian Civil Service and many people he knew had gone out there to make their careers. It was spoken of at dinner parties, usually with extreme seriousness, as the vital cornerstone of the Empire. On the other side of the world, yet somehow part of England, it was not a place he had ever thought he might visit. Yet now, as he listened to Masood talk about his childhood, and sensed the homesickness in his voice, he began to imagine himself against the same background. Perhaps, yes, perhaps he would go there one day.

In the meantime, however, England was very much with him. The suburbs especially, with their hateful self-righteousness, and where his life seemed to consist of an endless round of tea parties and amiable, empty conversations, mostly – it felt to him – with elderly women.

One of these was his mother’s great friend, Maimie Aylward. When Lily mentioned Morgan’s new pupil to her, she put a hand up to her face.

“Oh, dear,” she said. “I do hope he won’t steal the spoons.”

Morgan laughed politely, though he didn’t feel like laughing. He had learned to feign enjoyment in conversations like these, and hated himself for the pretence. Although he was English all the way through, a great many English attitudes felt foreign to him.

For this reason, what Morgan found most interesting in his new friend was the strangeness of him, the exoticism imported into his drawing room. The most familiar topic, seen through Masood’s eyes, became unpredictable, unusual. And what was ordinary to Masood seemed to Morgan remarkable.

Such as the casual mention one day that he could trace his ancestry back to the Prophet Mohammed at the thirty- seventh generation. “And to Adam at the hundred and twentieth,” he added. The world, in that moment, felt very old and beautiful.

Masood was in Paris for a few weeks, in the hope of improving his French. When he extended a casual invitation to come over for a visit, Morgan wavered only briefly. Aside from anything else, it would be an escape from his mother.

Masood came to meet him at the station. “It has been too frightful,” he announced. “I will never learn to speak this language with any finesse at all. And the French are ruder than the English, which I hadn’t thought possible. The white races are so damned ridiculous, it’s an embarrassment to have been colonised by them. Give me your bags immediately.”

He had taken rooms nearby, to which he led Morgan, talking incessantly. And their conversation barely ceased for the following week, in which they were always together. Morgan had never been to Paris before and everything had the power of freshness and discovery.

Wearing identical hats they had bought together in the Latin Quarter, they walked aimlessly through the streets, wandering in and out of galleries and restaurants and theatres. The city became a vast set for their small, luminous drama. It was the first time that they’d lived together in such unbroken intimacy, without other visitors or family in attendance. Perhaps, Morgan reflected, marriage was like this: a kind of completeness between two people, like coloured shades closing off the rest of the world. He could live in this way, he thought, in a strange city with Masood, and never be bored or unhappy.

At some point in that week, they spoke about being in India together. Masood would be returning there when his studies were done, and it seemed natural – like an extension of this Paris sojourn – that Morgan should join him.

What was less natural, perhaps, was what Masood now off-handedly proposed.

“Of course,” he said, “you will write a novel about it.”

“What? India? That’s not very likely, is it?”

“Why not? From the very first moment I met you, I knew that here was an Englishman who didn’t see the world like the rest of his countrymen. You don’t realise it, but you have an Oriental sensibility. That is why the book you’ll write will be unique. It will be written in English, it will seem to be from English eyes, but its secret view will be from inside.”

“If my mind is so like yours, why do I still find you so peculiar?”

But Masood was serious today. “You are offending me. If you can write about Italy, then why not about my country?”

Morgan considered it. An interesting notion, perhaps, but so far outside his own experience that it seemed impossible. He had read a few novels set in India, but they were all of a breathless female variety. Doomed love on the Frontier, that sort of thing. And there was Kipling, of course – but Kipling was always singing the virtues of the English and the inferiority of the natives, to say nothing of the gory glory of patriotic death.

They were walking in the street, a light rain falling, but the dampness and the slippery cobbles disappeared as his mind travelled elsewhere, either deep inside or far away. “My Italian novels,” he said at last, “are really about the English. Italy was merely a backdrop.”

“What of it? Write about the English in India, if it pleases you. Though I can tell you, they are a self-important, silly lot out there. Not the stuff of which heroes are made.” But then, a moment later, his tone changed to one of affected outrage. “I demand to be a character in your novel! Or are the English the only worthy subjects? Oh, I wish I had lived at the time of the great Oriental despotisms – I would have ordered you to write me endless books, with no English characters in them.” He went stalking ahead in pretended injury – or perhaps, for a moment, it was real.

This conversation stayed with Morgan. A novel about the English in India, one in which Masood also featured: it wasn’t an unattractive idea. Though he would, of course, have to pay a visit to the East, and that seemed like a monumental endeavour, one to which his life wasn’t equal.

On the morning of his departure from Paris, he woke early and lay for some time, looking across the room at the face of his sleeping friend. They had known one another for three years now, and yet it was only over the past few days that the final barrier had fallen. He had never felt closer to anybody. As he drifted back towards a doze, from some subterranean recess an understanding came to him.

Then he sat up, fully awake, in a flurry of panic. It was so obvious that he hadn’t seen it, or had managed to call it by other names. But once the true name had been uttered, it couldn’t be unsaid.

Yet even now he wondered. He had been aware for some time of where his true inclinations lay, and Masood didn’t fit them. The previous year, through his friend Sydney Waterlow, he had been invited to dinner with Henry James in Rye, and an incident there had revealed his own appetites to him. The evening had been passably pleasant, though not for one moment had he felt truly at ease, truly in place. It had begun badly, with the Master emerging from his house, laying a plump hand on Morgan’s shoulder and

“From the very first moment I met you, I knew that here was an Englishman who didn’t see the world like the rest of his countrymen. You have an Oriental sensibility. That is why the book you’ll write will be unique. It will be in English, but its secret view will be from inside” telling him, “Your name’s Moore.” That misunderstanding had been cleared up, but it had been followed by another confusion between Weybridge and Wakefield, and this awkwardness had stamped itself into all the social intercourse that followed.

It was only when he left Lamb House that something had become apparent. In the warm gloom, a labourer was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, and the man’s indistinct form, the red glow of the coal, had moved something in Morgan that all the high talk inside could not. He remembered the working-class men who had stirred him in his life, and remembered too a glimpse he’d had from a train window of two naked brown bodies sunning themselves in a warehouse. He had understood then what drew him; what his ticket was. Not just the lean outline propped against the wall, but the larger world he belonged to – the darkness, the evening under the sky, the smell of smoke and fields.

It was impossible, of course, because it was not his world. He belonged to what he’d just left behind: the polite, constricted ritual around the dining table, the buttoned-down conversation about books and travel and opera and architecture. Yet even there he could not keep his gaze from sliding sideways, to the figure of the servant who bent in to clear the plates. Although they brushed against each other, there was an immeasurable gulf between the two worlds, and something in him longed to close that gap. Only connect: he had set the yearning down in the book he was busy writing – yet it remained a yearning, an incurable ache.

And Masood, for all his difference, his exotic pedigree, belonged to Morgan’s world. He had never for a moment been out of place in Oxford, or Paris, or at his mother’s dining table in Weybridge. It was a matter of class; it nearly always was in England. It was not unusual in the least that Morgan should spend a week on holiday with Masood, but a week like this with Ansell, the garden boy, or that labourer outside Lamb House? Unthinkable!

All of this passed through Morgan’s mind in an incoherent tumble, while Masood finally groaned and turned and yawned, coming to wakefulness. The realisation of love was important, but it also seemed improbable. They were too much alike, they fitted too closely together, for love to have taken hold. Love was what could never work; love was the longing across an insuperable barrier.

So it was something else, then, a misplaced fondness, a brotherly closeness. He put on his social face again. Yet something of his earlier disquiet lingered, making him unsettled and cold. At the station, when the time came to say goodbye, England was already upon him. He held out his hand to be shaken.

“Well,” he said. “I had better run for the train. Thank you so much for everything – I have enjoyed myself enormously.”

Masood stared at him, his handsome face becoming suffused with dismay. It took a moment for his voice to emerge. “What are you saying to me?”

Morgan was genuinely confused. “I am saying goodbye.”

“This is how you say goodbye? To me? After the wonderful few days we have spent together, the sort of days I have never shared with anyone—” He broke off in a sort of strangled wail. “Oh, what is the use, what is the use?”

“If I miss my train, it will put my mother to great trouble. She and my grandmother—”

“I don’t care about your grandmother!” Masood’s eyes flashed, as if he might become violent.

So intense was this display that Morgan thought his friend was putting on an act. It took a few moments for him to understand that the performance was real. “I’m seeing you again in a few days,” he said at last. “I didn’t think sentiment was necessary.”

“You are saying goodbye like an Englishman.”

“I am an Englishman.”

“Yes, I wish I could forget it for just a moment, I wish you could forget it! Are emotions a sack of potatoes, to be measured out, so much the pound? Are we both machines? Will you use up your feelings if you express them? Can you not speak from the heart, just one time? Oh, Morgan, you bloody fool,” he cried fiercely, flinging his powerful arms around him and lifting him off the floor, “don’t you understand, we’re friends!” He made as if to throw Morgan onto the tracks, kissed him hard on the cheek, then set him down and strode off, a whole head higher than the crowds around him.

Morgan was astonished, and disquieted, and pleased. On the journey home, he thought confusedly back to that conversation on the platform, and to his half-wakeful thoughts that same morning. It had long been a problem, this question of his formality against Masood’s natural extravagance. On his visits to Oxford he had been chastised for any gratitude, or for evaluating an experience in terms of how good or bad it was. These kinds of formality were cold, in Masood’s opinion; he was above such petty distinctions. All manners should be washed away in a balm of friendly emotion.

For his part, Morgan had his doubts. Protocol and courtesy might be ritualised, but they had weight and significance too. And emotion could hide things as well as show them.

They would probably never agree on this point. It was a matter of nationality, of course – but there was also the larger matter of character. Perhaps Masood was right to mistrust the English tendency to properness, but he, Morgan, hid a very real feeling behind his apparent coolness. If Masood could only hear the words he would like to speak, perhaps he would be less keen on sentiment.