Bankura’s Englishman

Amit Chaudhuri

  • Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore by E.P. Thompson
    Oxford, 175 pp, £8.95, June 1993, ISBN 0 19 563011 4

Two Englishmen spring to mind in connection with Tagore: C.F. Andrews and W.W. Pearson. Andrews, with his further association with Gandhi, looms now and then in Indian history books and national folklore as a ‘friend of India’, and, strange as it may sound, nothing more. The adoration and idealising passion with which Andrews engaged with India make us engage with him as a sincere but rather bland generality, an ideal Englishman, and rarely as a person. We see him walking with Tagore and Gandhi, part disciple and part companion, with little apparent contact with ordinary people, till he becomes, in our minds, one of the great stereotypes of that era, to figure occasionally in fairy tales such as Attenborough’s Gandhi. E.J., or Edward, Thompson, seldom remembered these days, and always uneasy in his role as ‘friend of India’, was, on the other hand, involved with the country of his long domicile (from 1910-23) in a way that was often uncomfortable but always intimate; he reappears now in a short book written by his son, E.P. Thompson.

Although Alien Homage is about his relations with Tagore, it is in E.J. Thompson’s incarnation as clergyman and teacher in a small Bengali town called Bankura (now known mainly for its clay horses), and in his daily contact, as a teacher, with the common people of that town, that he is today interesting and even unique. E.P. Thompson believes that the subject of his book is the ‘interface between two cultures’, and that this is primarily exemplified in his father’s ‘interface’, as translator, biographer, and often misunderstood friend, with Tagore. While this is partly true – the story of Thompson’s uneasy relations with Tagore might be an important one, especially to Tagore scholars – a far richer ‘interface’ might have been found, one suspects, in Thompson’s affectionate attachment to the local people of Bankura, an affection that quickens portions of his now forgotten novels and what little we know of his personality. In this intimacy with ordinary people – schoolboys, anxious parents, teachers – Thompson was perhaps one of the most humane of the Englishmen in colonial India, and his sense of what is comic in ordinary lives comes from closeness rather than, as it did sometimes with Forster, from an outsider’s detachment. As the narrative of Thompson’s life as a teacher in Bankura is scattered through writings in letters, autobiographical novels, essays and plays, a whole new book would be required to do it justice; in this one, the first chapter – certainly the funniest and liveliest in the book – freely quotes from Thompson and provides a background before we go on to weightier matters concerning him and Tagore.

E.P. Thompson informs us that his father, in the passages of colonial history and the world of Indo-Anglian relations, ‘was a marginal man, a courier between cultures who wore the authorised livery of neither’. Moreover, though ‘he developed a wide circle of Bengali friendships,’ these were ‘always beset with misrecognitions’. It is not as a representative of official English policy or spokesman for the Church that Thompson makes his presence felt, but as a transgressive, playful individual who loved cricket, poetry and Indians. As vice-principal of a college in an obscure Bengali village, and as a teacher of English literature at the high school, with ‘seven Indian professors (of mathematics, logic, history, chemistry, physics, economics and Sanskrit) and a Sanskrit pundit’, he was certainly at the centre of what has been identified as the sovereign colonial battleground by post-colonial theorists – education. For the teaching of English literature and the imparting of British education, we now know, was inextricably, implicitly and endemically involved with the exercise of colonial power and domination. Life on the battleground, however, could often be, unsurprisingly, quite different from the picture the theorists have drawn for us. ‘Far more devotion,’ says E.P. Thompson, ‘went into teaching the heathen football and cricket (in which Thompson excelled) than into Bible-studies.’ ‘Yesterday, in quite bitter tones, one of my B.A. students was remonstrating with me for having taught things about Milton that are not in the syllabus,’ E.J. Thompson wrote in a letter. ‘The truth is, I have never troubled my head about the syllabus, even to look at it.’

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[*] I Won’t Let You Go: Selected Poems by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson (Bloodaxe, 272 pp., £7.95, 1991, 1 85224 119 5).