IN 1953 E.M. FORSTER published what he called a record of a vanished civilisation. “Some will rejoice that it has vanished. Others will feel that something precious has been thrown away amongst the rubbish …” He meant the tiny kingdom of Dewas, about 25 miles from the city of Indore in central India, which with independence and the gradual fading away of the princely states effectively fell off the map. For six months in 1921 Forster was private secretary to Maharajah Tukoji Rao Ponwar of Dewas.
Employer and employee remained consistently hazy about the function of a private secretary, it apparently being crucial for an Indian maharajah to have an English secretary but immaterial what he did with one. During his time in Dewas Forster sacked a dastardly driver, paid off a few small bills, participated in interminable Gokul Ashtami celebrations to mark the birth of Krishna, lent an ear to palace intrigues, was embroiled in an epistolary dispute with his predecessor, Colonel Wilson, played a card game called jubbu and sent home the vivid, delightful letters that make up The Hill of Devi.
When I visit Dewas, bearing a copy of the book that has sent me into mourning for that vanished civilisation each time I have read it, I imagine that just as The Hill of Devi breathes life into Dewas, Dewas maintains a half-century-old excitement about The Hill of Devi. I am, naturally, wrong. A telephone call to the palace reveals that the present king is travelling and that the edifice – Anand Bhavan, where Forster stayed for those six months – is out of bounds to visitors. The stern voice of the custodian kills all hope of stumbling upon some amiable, toothless raconteur eager to gossip about 1921.
There is nowhere to go, therefore, but to Devi – up the hill to her shrine at the top, where Forster once went on an elephant with his visiting friend, Sir Syed Ross Masood. The elephant’s howdah started to slip on the journey up and later, when they visited Ujjain, the river bank was overrun by naked sadhus. Masood, inspiration for the character Aziz in A Passage to India and, at the time he visited Dewas, Education Secretary in the much more advanced state of Hyderabad, found it all a bit much. “After three days of Hinduism,” writes Forster in The Hill of Devi, “Masood retired with his clerks and his files to Hyderabad.”
The town is spread before me, all encompassed by the eye of Devi. The water tank whose breezes Forster enjoyed of an evening is a stamp-sized glitter in the sun and I can see the roof of the old palace – “inconvenient, dirty, dark and a hotbed of intrigue”. Anand Bhavan, the new palace, is on the outskirts of town. I decide to confront the unfriendly guard and go downhill to look for a rickshaw. My first, surprised, thought on emerging from the avenue of trees off the Indore-Bhopal road and seeing Anand Bhavan is that Forster was wrong. Of the abundance of appalling taste that bothered him in Dewas, this small palace was seemingly an exemplar. It turns out though to be a tumbledown but still elegant, compact, yellow and white villa-sized structure, built in a style that came to be called Indo-Saracenic, with arched verandahs running around its sides and a plaque elaborating in ornate prose the history of its construction and the date of its inauguration: January 12, 1911.
I can picture the airy, high-ceilinged rooms where Forster sat writing letters home when not despairing about the manuscript of A Passage to India that he had brought with him. (It was not until he returned to England that he was able to complete it.) I want to see the rooms but the present king has his quarters in some of them. I am prevented from going inside or taking photographs by the half-dozen men – all apparently caretakers of different denominations – who have emerged from various niches in the grounds. One stands on the balcony of a recent-looking extension to the palace and bellows in answer to my appeals: “Impossible!” I wish Forster were at hand to mitigate disappointment with scintillating prose, or at least good humour.
Please subscribe/sign in
to view article.