In the early 20th century intelligent, well-educated women had little direct access to power, influence and prestige. One way that they could get close to this world was as the secretary to a man – a politician, writer, or similar. In the 1930s a woman called Thelma Frost got a job as secretary to Choudhary Rahmat Ali, a young law student at Cambridge University who had come from British-controlled India.
She would work devotedly for Ali until the late 1940s, leaving his service (due to her ill-health) just two years before his death. Through the height of his career as an anti-colonial writer and constant thorn in the side of both the British and the elites of the Indian nationalist movement, Frost stayed by his side.
Earlier this year, in a bookshop in Cambridge, I came across an unusual stack of poetry books, which, it turned out, used to belong to Frost. Four of them with gift inscriptions from C. Rahmat Ali to “Miss Thelma Frost”. On 7th August 1936 (Frost’s birthday, we might suppose) he gave her a collection of poems by the Victorian, Irish nationalist and spiritualist poet “A.E.” Then, at Christmas 1937, he gave her a collection by Ruth Pitter, one of the most popular poets of the 1930s, who is now not a central part of the 20th canon but who has not been forgotten either. On Christmas 1940 he gave her another collection by Ruth Pitter and one by Alice Meynell, poet, suffragist and literary critic.
Ali’s book selection shows a preference for traditional poetic style (no modernists here!) and for female poets. It is hard to say whether this reflected his taste or Thelma Frost’s; some other books in the shop that Frost had bought for herself were collections of poems by Edith Sitwell and Harold Monro – her taste was hardly radical. These books are rather pedestrian examples of 20th century poetry but, as a small window onto the relationship between Frost and Ali, they are fascinating.
Choudhary Rahmat Ali was a curious figure himself, a marginal player in the history of the decolonisation of the Indian subcontinent. He had come to Emmanuel College in the early 1930s to study law. Although he did join the bar in the 1940s, he seems to have spent most of that decade in Cambridge penning strident pamphlets about the future of his homeland.
His own role in the history Indian national movement is hardly covered in glory. If he is remembered for anything, it is as the man who came up with the name Pakistan in 1933. But when the creation of this state in 1947 was a mere shadow of Ali’s ambitious vision for the region, formulated throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Convinced that, if a single country was created, Muslims would be permanent minorities, he proposed the creation of a series of small Islamic states as a patchwork through the subcontinent. As well as the Pakistan National Movement, he created the Osmanistan National Movement (around Hyderabad), the Nasaristan National Movement (in Eastern Sri Lanka), the Maplistan National Movement (on the South West coast of India), and many more. His plans laid claim to a very large proportion of the country, including most of its major cities. As such it was probably unlikely to win the support of many other populations of India. But he knew this. Ali reject the whole idea of India as a colonial (or Hindu) imposition.
Ali clashed with almost all of India’s established Muslim politicians. He saw himself as the builder of the new order, one that rejected their old, submissive ways: “Mankind is on the march. It is moving over mountains of dead and maimed, and across deserts of rubble and ruins. Indeed, it is entering a new era in history. That is, an era of change, of challenge, and of chance.” Other politicians, he branded “mealy mouthed careerists”, who had sold out to British imperialism and “Indianism”. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, now esteemed as the founder of Pakistan, was a particular target of his attacks. Ali branded him a sell-out, calling him “the Boozna [Baboon] of Bombay”.
These politicians in turn had little love for Ali. They dismissed his plans as a “student’s scheme” and called his strange model of independent statelets “chimerical and impractical”. He considered himself to have been excluded from any negotiations about the future of the country. It is, perhaps, more accurate to say he was ignored.
When Choudhary Rahmat Ali visited the new state of Pakistan in 1948, he could not hide his disillusion. He saw a country full of people taking credit for his own hard work. His trip to Pakistan was so psychologically taxing that, by the end ,he had even begun to suspect that someone was trying to poison him. Heartbroken, he returned to Cambridge in 1949 and moved into a secret address (he collected his post from the porters Emmanuel College and instructed them to tell no-one where he was living). In 1951, tired, broken and sick, he died at the Evelyn Nursing Home.
Throughout all this time, Thelma Frost stayed loyal to her employer, defending his legacy long after his death. When an old friend of Ali claimed that “he met apparently with complete failure”, Frost wrote to her, absolutely disagreeing. “To my certain knowledge he never gave up hope, but continued to work for his ideal to his last days. Broken in health he may have been, but never in spirit.”
Many years after his death, Frost wrote a two page tribute to Choudhary Rahmat Ali. Frost described the man who she saw as a complicated genius with great admiration. “He was exacting and demanding and not easily satisfied either with his own work or other people’s… he didn’t spare himself or those who worked for him.” She painted a picture of an eccentric man: a heavy smoker, obsessively finicky over detail, poor but desperate to show others that he was wealthy, and with a very low tolerance for noise around him. He was also gifted, could be very charming and had an unwaveringly positive attitude. Frost concluded her short character study with these words: “Choudhary Rahmat Ali was a fanatic with a brilliantly creative mind and an unbreakable persistence. May he rest in peace.”
Nowhere does Frost mention the precise nature of the work she did for Ali. The work that secretaries at the time was often hard to define. They may have discussed ideas about the future of India (/Dinia) together, even collaborated to some degree, or her role may have been more administrative. She talked little about it herself.
On the other side, the silences are more striking. We know that Frost admired Choudhary Rahmat Ali, for many years after his death, and we know why. But, when it comes to what he thought of her, there is no record. These four books of poems are some of the only surviving bits of evidence. Even in this case many questions remain. What made him pick these particular books? Was he a particular fan of female poets in general? Was he a devotee of Ruth Pitter in particular?
Maybe we will only ever be able see things from Frost’s perspective. In the volume of A.E. poems that she received in 1936 three small pieces of paper have been inserted (likely by Frost herself) to mark the place of three poems. The first, is placed beside the poem “Immortality”. Did she read it as a tribute to the man who gave himself so completely to a vision that never came to pass?
We must pass like smoke or live within the spirit’s fire;
For we can no more than smoke unto the flame return
If our thought has changed to dream, our will unto desire,
As smoke we vanish though the fire may burn.
Lights of infinite pity star the grey dusk of our days:
Surely here is soul: with it we have eternal breath:
In the fire of love we live, or pass by many ways,
By unnumbered ways of dream to death.
(The quotes come from the Thelma Frost Papers in Cambridge https://www.s-asian.cam.ac.uk/archive/papers/item/frost-papers/ It includes copies of all of Ali’s pamphlets and many other resources)