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Forster Chacha: A Personal Reminiscence
WHY refer to E.M. Forster as "Forster Chacha"? By way of explanation, 'chacha' means 'uncle' in Urdu and that was how my late father Syed Enver Masood and his late younger brother Syed Akbar Masood addressed Forster all their lives. They were the sons of Sir Syed Ross Masood, Forster's greatest Indian friend to whom he dedicated his masterpiece, A Passage to India. The closeness between Masood and Forster and its importance—both personally for Forster as well as its literary consequences—are well known. In a moving tribute to Masood published in Two Cheers for Democracy, Forster acknowledged his debt to him in these words: "My own debt to him is incalculable. He woke me up out of my suburban and academic life, showed me new horizons and a new civilisation and helped me towards the understanding of a continent. Until I met him, India was a vague jumble of rajahs, sahibs, babus, and elephants and I was not interested in such a jumble: who could be? He made everything real and exciting as soon as he began to talk and 17 years later when I wrote A Passage to India I dedicated it to him out of gratitude as well as out of love, for it would never have been written without him..."
Forster Chacha was the guardian of Enver and Akbar Masood throughout their schooling in England. Indeed, although so English in many ways, he had a unique sympathy and understanding for both India and Indians. In 1919 when he first visited India and stayed with Masood, he felt happy and fortunate to have landed so quickly in the midst of Indian life and he became well-acquainted with Masood's wide circle of friends. Masood encouraged Forster to write about India and predicted that because of Forster's rare understanding of the Indian spirit, the book would be a masterpiece.
I had heard about Forster Chacha all my life, but did not meet him until the late '50s when my sister and I, together with my cousin (my late uncle's son), were at school in England. We were spending a few days in Broadway in the Cotswolds and Forster Chacha came over for the day with Bob and May Buckingham (Bob Chacha and May Chachi to us), his great friends with whom he stayed. I was immediately struck by the contrast between his untidy rumpled suit and portly frame and the sharpness and sparkle of his expression. At lunch, I watched with admiration as he deftly picked his way through grilled trout looking at me mischievously over the top of his glasses. I asked him whether he found tackling the bones a trying business. "Oh, it's well worth it," he said. When dessert appeared, he peered at the plate and asked what it was. "Ah, apple something. I thought so. Just so long as it isn't apple snow, I'll eat it." After that meeting, we corresponded regularly. Little postcards would arrive from time to time with a one-liner—"Thinking of you. Take care. F.C." By this time, I had arrived in Oxford. I used to make it a point to go to Cambridge every term to see him. He was always so welcoming. I once wrote to him about a visit to Cambridge in connection with the Conservative Association. He replied by return to ask whether "a liberal lunch" would have any attraction. If so, he would gladly and willingly provide one. The lunch, as I recall, was indeed liberal. Forster Chacha was in sparkling form—whether he was talking about vegetables, about books or his contemporaries. He regaled us for three hours. During the afternoon I ventured to ask him about Virginia Woolf. "Poor Leonard," he replied. "She really was odd. Uniquely talented, but odd. Somebody once asked her 'Mrs Woolf?' and she said 'Is it?'" Among the vegetables at lunch were peas. Forster Chacha wickedly asked the waiter what they were. "Garden Peas, Mr Forster," was the reply. "You surprise me. The garden is a very long way indeed from these peas," said Forster Chacha. We stayed until long after teatime. He wouldn't let us go. I always felt he loved the ritual of tea; warming the teapot, refilling the tea cups most attentively and fussing about in his cavernous cupboard for shortbread and fruit cake, kneeling before the fire. In his room there was a rather fussy ornate fireplace which had been designed by his father which dominated one end of the room. It seemed to give him great pleasure to be near it.
Out of the blue one day came a letter from him and enclosed with it was an invitation from the Italian government. There was to be a function to bestow a literary award on Forster Chacha in appreciation of his love and understanding of Italy. How I wish I could have gone with him. It would have been an occasion to remember.
Forster Chacha was a member of the Reform Club and on one occasion after much persuasion, he agreed to come with me to the theatre to see Ross (a play about his close friend T.E. Lawrence with Alec Guinness in the part). He was twitchy and apprehensive at the start but as the play went on, he seemed to enjoy it more and more. We then went for a drink to the Reform Club where the glacial glare of the barman put a swift end to any enjoyment for me. Women were at that time not fully welcome in London clubs—this has happily changed now.
I left Oxford in 1966 and as was my wont, paid him a visit. He hadn't been well, and instead of us lunching at the Arts Theatre Restaurant which we usually did, he suggested soup and sandwiches in the combination room. On our way back to his rooms, he shooed a woman don off the grass quite fiercely and when I asked him why, he regretted that women were all over his college—why couldn't they leave the grass alone? Without really thinking, I asked him whether—as he was my grandfather's generation—I shouldn't call him Forster Dada (grandfather) rather than Forster Chacha. "Please don't," he retorted feelingly. "Chacha is quite ageing enough. I refuse to be called dada." That was the end of the matter.
The last time I saw him was after his 90th birthday when he had been awarded the OM. He was reminiscing, and this took the form of delving in his drawers and getting out his India clothes, degrees, etc. I asked him to show me his OM. "I'll even put it on for you," he said. The recognition pleased him greatly even though he had misgivings about the colour (mauve and a green laurel wreath with the rather obvious words "For Merit" written on them). King's College gave him a 90th birthday lunch. His birthday was New Year's Day and he referred to himself as "a New Year gift". Several of his surviving friends attended the lunch. He had, to a supreme degree, the capacity for making friends with every generation; his ability to "connect" with other people was unique.
On this occasion I found him lively and affectionate, but frail, his fragile delicate hands encased in mittens against the cold. I thought he was dozing by the fire but on looking again, found him gazing at me intently. He suddenly got up and took my face in his hands. "I see so much of your grandfather in you," he said. I was overwhelmed. He came to see me off as usual and as I drove away, I saw him outlined against the entrance, his head slightly tilted to one side and his left hand raised in a gesture of benediction.News of his death in 1970 reached me when I had left England. To have had him as part of my family and to have known him on such informal and affectionate terms has been a privilege for me that no words can describe.
(The author is the great great grand-daughter of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University. She is the grand-daughter of Ross Masood.)