Sad farewell

Print edition : August 31, 2002

India's Prisoner, A Biography of Edward John Thompson; 1886-1946 by Mary Lago, University of Missouri Press; pages 388, $39.95.

I AM perhaps one of few Indians who actually has read E. J. Thompson and possesses three of his books, including The Making of the Indian Princes which was praised highly by E.M. Forster and read with interest by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Ahmednagar jail. This biography illuminates the life of a good man and also the political ferment of the Freedom Movement. Thompson was attracted by its moral content but depressed by the stagnation that set in from time to time.

Edward Thompson was a novelist, poet, journalist and historian. He came to India in 1910 as a Methodist missionary to teach English at the Bankura Wesleyan College. Being a liberal-minded, non-pucca sahib, he, to some extent became partially a native. He became interested in the Freedom Movement. He got to know Gandhiji reasonably well. With Nehru he was intimate. Nehru actually took Thompson to a Congress Working Committee meeting in Wardha in 1939. No one objected!

The title of this painstakingly researched but hauntingly sad book is Gandhi's gift. When Thompson's A Farewell to India appeared in 1925, Gandhi had the following conversation with him:

"They tell me, Mr. Thompson, that you have published a book titled A Farewell to India?

"That is so, Mahatmaji".

"Well, it seems to me that you have been wasting your time again. How do you think that you are ever going to say farewell to India? You are India's prisoner."

A word about Mary Lago, the author. She is a Forster scholar. She, with P.N. Furbank, edited Forster's letters. She has translated Tagore. She is currently Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Missouri, United States.

Thompson could be called a well meaning but not very successful Anglo-India (not Anglo-Indian) goodwill ambassador. He was listened to but did not have enough clout to influence policy in London or in New Delhi. Thompson was uncomfortable with the way Indians interpreted his activities and his alleged influence with the powers-that-be.

THOMPSON'S relations with Tagore are candidly dealt with by Mary Lago and with all due respect it must be said that Gurudev comes out second best. Thompson's book, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist displeased the poet who uncharacteristically pitched into the rather naive and unsuspecting Thompson. One observation by Tagore is enough to indicate how annoyed he was with Thompson. "Then again being a Christian missionary, his training makes him incapable of understanding the jeevan-devata (life-god). The limited aspect of divinity which has its unique place in individual life, in contrast to that which belongs to the Universe," and more of the same. Even Harish Trivedi thinks that Gurudev went too far in attacking Thompson. The rift never healed. I may be mistaken, but C.F. Andrews could have contributed to Tagore's reaction. Andrews did not take kindly to other Englishmen, like Thompson and the wealthy English agricultural economist, Leo Elmhirst who later founded Dartington Hall, becoming intimate with Tagore.

Thompson's political views were those of a cautious but forward-looking liberal. He was friendly with Sir Srinivas Sastri, M.R. Jayakar and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru. Not the most exciting of trios. Nehru came down heavily on Sastri in his autobiography. Jayakar had contempt for Gandhi and thought poorly of Nehru. Who remembers Jayakar today? EJT knew Jinnah too, and did not take the Pakistan demand seriously. Nor did Congress leaders. A grave misjudgment.

Thompson got on well with Nehru and the two corresponded till the closing days of EJT's life. EJT could not convert Nehru to opt for dominion status during his lifetime. Within 14 months of EJT's death, India opted for Partition and dominion status. Mary Lago has used this correspondence, available in the Selected Works of Nehru. Yet she has not referred at any length to the letters that Palmer, the younger and much more famous second son of EJT, wrote to Nehru, and Nehru's reply and his letter to EJT a few days before his death. They are worth recalling. On April 1, 1946, E. P. Thompson (1922-1993) wrote to Nehru:

"It would give him (Edward Thompson) tremendous pleasure if you could find time to write to him a line. He has been so cut off from his friends - both here and in India - during the past two years that he sometimes becomes depressed with a sense of failure. I am writing to you as I feel you are one of the few people who could encourage him and persuade him of what he has achieved".

This Nehru did on April 10, 1946. It is a generous and warm-hearted letter by a man who was sensitive to the vagaries of life:

I have trained myself, insofar as possible, neither to expect too much from life nor to despair of it... What I wanted to tell you was that you are often in my thoughts and strangely enough I have thought more of you than ever... I have thought of our friendship and what a good influence it has had on me at particular moments of my existence... I should love to meet you again and talk about so many things.

Jawaharlal Nehru believed in the noble instincts of the human heart. And this nobility touched Edward John Thompson, who cabled a reply to Nehru on April 20, 1946, eight days before his death: "Warmest affection, grateful thanks to you all." In his book, Writing by Candlelight, Palmer Thompson referred to this final exchange between Nehru and his father:

My father read it... let the letter drop into the sheet and remarked - Oh Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace.

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