While watching A Passage to India, David Lean’s adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, I’ve begun reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s prison letters to his 10-year-old daughter, Indira Gandhi, who went on to become the Prime Minister of India (twice), like her father before her.
I discovered this little gem of a children’s book through a sweeping history of one of the world’s most vibrant new democracies, India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha, who is now my favorite history writer of all time. Guha’s history of India is rich in personal detail, while still remaining epic in scope and searchingly powerful in the variety of perspectives it brings to bear on each chapter in India’s eventful recent history.
Reading these letters (from 1931) today, while watching the third act of the movie, gave a special poignancy to the story. This sonnet is about Peggy Ashcroft’s Academy Award-winning performance as the Englishwoman Mrs. Moore.
Here, Mrs. Moore looks out on the moon’s reflection in the Indian ocean from a steamer on which she has left India alone, spurned by her son, the colonial magistrate, who has just refused bail to her friend, Dr. Aziz, on the grounds that his fiance (her friend Miss Quested) accuses Dr. Aziz of attempted rape, during an expedition to the eerie and remote Marabar caves.
To look upon the moonlight on the deep,
I cannot help remembering Aziz,
not as he is, but as we met – I keep
returning to that scene, the great Ganges,
the modesty with which this doctor smiled
to share the view with me, as if he knew
my heart the way an unassuming child
can read our minds at once – and as I do,
my very being stutters at the thought
that our encounter led him on to this
appalling consequence. Those empty caves,
so full of what we bring to them, and not
what we would take again – all that’s amiss
re-echoes in distorted, ceaseless waves.