In this hard-hitting novel, first published in 1924, the murky personal relationship between an Englishwoman and an Indian doctor mirrors the troubled politics of colonialism. Adela Quested and her fellow British travelers, eager to experience the "real" India, develop a friendship with the urbane Dr. Aziz. While on a group outing, Adela and Dr. Aziz visit the Marabar caves together. As they emerge, Adela accuses the doctor of assaulting her. While Adela never actually claims she was raped, the decisions she makes ostracize her from both her countrymen and the natives, setting off a complex chain of events that forever changes the lives of all involved. This intense and moving story asks the listener serious questions about preconceptions regarding race, sex, religion, and truth. A political and philosophical masterpiece.
From what I could see, there are two themes or ideas that lie at the heart of this novel. One is the intricacy of friendship between two vastly different people - a theme he explores in Howards End and A Room With a View as well. And the other is an even more complicated idea - and courageous too - that of colonialism, racism and the pitfalls and tensions involved with the meeting of different cultures.
The friendship between Aziz, a Muslim-Indian doctor, illogical, warm-hearted and impulsive - and Fielding, a British schoolteacher with an unusual lack of prejudice and equality of vision among colonialists of the time, is fraught with unexpected pitfalls, sudden yawning chasms, and much damage accidentally inflicted. Both men try to overcome these things, honestly liking and respecting the other - but Forster makes it clear that there is too much against them. India and Britain, Forster is saying, cannot combine, cannot find common ground, even with the best will in the world.
Which brings us to the other, main theme of the novel, the whole vast idea of British rule in India. Forster finished writing this book in 1924, when British Imperialism was in all its power, and as such, this is a brave book. Neither the British nor the Indian people come out looking very good - Forster doesn't seem to be on anybody's side. There are many things I could say which Forster brings out about all this, but what struck me most of all while reading it was something very difficult to discuss about racism. A lack of racism, Forster seems to be saying, tends to come about by the understanding that 'underneath' it all, 'they' are really the same as 'us'. And Forster challenges this. Again and again, he brings out situations in which it is clear that 'they' are not the same (by 'they' I mean both British and Indian characters, both trying to be reconciled to each other). In the most fundamental things, vast differences are constantly rearing their heads, and understandings that were just about to happen come to nothing. Through the characters of Fielding and Aziz in particular, and others also, Forster seemed to me to be questioning how there can be any validity in a tolerance that refuses to accept fundamental differences in things related to judgement, honour, worship, the value of logic, and other things that come much closer to the bone than the outer differences usually passed off as a person's "culture". And to go any further than that in my analysis leaves me floundering, because I don't know nearly enough to discuss it properly. But Forster gives much to think about which is as relevant now as it was then.
How fully did Forster himself escape that incredibly permeating influence of the colonialist way of thinking? For me it was hard to tell, but I couldn't help wondering. As much as Forster hated the smug, narrow, paternalistic British, he also seems to find all that was India at the time to be consistently disappointing. But I can't really feel that this is persistent colonialism - I think it's more to do with Forster's idea that what is, is - and to judge it by our own standards is to fail to judge it by somebody else's, just as valid.
These are deep waters, and I'll stop there, except to say that this is of course not only about difficult themes, it is also about characters, plot and story. The incident at the Marabar Caves and its aftermath kept me on the edge of my seat - this in spite of the fact that Forster himself was sorry that a novel cannot exist without story, that primitive (and to him, demeaning) need to know "what happens next". I certainly wanted to know what happened next, and cared about the characters (especially Aziz) as much as I would in a much less importantly-themed novel.
I'm not sure quite what to think about this story. In some ways it is banal; in some ways suspenseful and interesting. It never had me by the heart or feeling excessive emotions, but the stiff upper-lip writing was still compelling. E.M. Forster took several philosophical detours throughout the book that I found the most enjoyable, if not slightly beside the story. My experience of the Indian people I know intimately mirrors Forster's in many ways and so I was credulous in his descriptions of the "native" mind, where someone else not well-acquainted with Indian people may have found the descriptions of attitudes and behaviors suspect. It seems like he might be writing to negate the old adage that "no man is an island." The saying is irrefutable and yet one can be stranded in the midst of humanity. This is a story of people making full- and half-hearted attempts to connect to other people across class, racial, and religious lines, and they ultimately fail but it's not as sad as it sounds. It's almost expected.
"And he felt dubious and discontented suddenly, and wondered whether he was really and truly successful as a human being. After forty years' experience, he had learnt to manage his life and make the best of it on advanced European lines, had developed his personality, explored his limitations, controlled his passions--and had done it all without becoming either pedantic or worldly. A creditable achievement, but as the moment passed, he felt he ought to have been working at something else the whole time,--he didn't know at what, never would know, never could know, and that was why he felt sad."
With a backdrop of British Colonial India, A Passage to India is the story of Dr. Aziz, a Muslim Indian physician who is sympathetic and welcoming of the Brits. The story begins with Dr. Aziz meeting an elderly lady who is visiting her son with Miss Quested, a flighty priggish young woman who wants to meet a "real Indian." Dr. Aziz, in welcoming exuberance, gives a polite but insincere invitation to his house and is shocked when Miss Quested takes him up on the offer. Embarrassed by his home, Dr. Aziz instead suggests that he host a trip to the Marabar caves. But in those caves, Miss Quested gets lost, and in her fear thinks that Dr. Aziz has accosted her, when he is actually in another cave looking for her.
A Passage to India was a fantastic book on so many levels. With Miss Quested's ill-advised acceptance of Dr. Aziz's invitation (among many other ill-advised behaviors from the ladies), it highlights the differences between Indian culture and British culture. Dr. Aziz is overly accommodating, and the stand-offish British are entirely unaware of his putting himself out--they take all his welcoming exuberance quite literally.
The characterization was also quite deep. For instance, it showed Miss Quested's priggishness by her wish to see a "real Indian," her pronounced reserve by her interactions with her potential fiance, and her openness to suggestion by her continued accusations of Dr. Aziz (which she seemed unsure of, but which were egged on by others of the British community).
The writing style was sleek and symbolic. For instance at one point, before any of the horrifying incidents unfold, Mrs. Moore sees a wasp which reminds her vaguely of Indian culture. This wasp foreshadows the horrible events that follow.
And most importantly, the A Passage to India outlined the failings of British colonialism, the blindness and priggishness of the British impressions of Indian people, and the resulting hostilities.
I loved this book. This is my first Forster book that I've read, and it will most certainly not be my last.
The first third of the book was hard to get into -- tedious, even, while the last two-thirds were unputdownable. The author describes misunderstandings, both willful and innocent, between English characters, and the native and English-educated Muslim and Hindu characters, with slights on both sides both immaterial and devastating. The story centers around a muslim doctor, Aziz, who befriends the English educator Cyril Fielding, and makes the acquaintance of two visiting British ladies, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore. On an sightseeing excursion to the Marabar caves, Dr. Aziz is accused of assaulting Miss Quested in one of the caves. The ensuing uproar, trial, and resolution leave the entire community and all concerned individuals changed forever. I found it beautiful, thought-provoking, and infuriating at times. I wondered a lot about "the real India" -- as Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore did, though the "real" India is an undefinable, enigmatic entity utterly changed by the British and their rule -- and departure.
Why I didn't like it as much as others: the story was not all that interesting to me, and I thought the book could have been pared down. I also don't think the book is particularly well-written; among other things the descriptions of India's religious ceremonies were muddled and confusing.
Persian grave inscription:
"Alas, without me for thousands of years
The Rose will blossom and the Spring will bloom,
But those who have secretly understood my heart -
They will approach and visit the grave where I lie."
"Trying to recover his temper, he said, 'India likes gods.'
'And Englishmen like posing as gods.'"
"....a poem should touch the hearer with a sense of his own weakness, and should institute some comparison between mankind and flowers."
"The train in its descent through the Vindyas had described a semicircle round Asirgarh. What could she connect it with except its own name? Nothing; she knew no one who lived there. But it had looked at her twice and seemed to say: 'I do not vanish.'"
Animals and birds are half-seen, unidentified; the landscape is a featureless blur; motives are illogical and rest on miscommunication. All human language, in the final analysis, amounts to nothing more than the dull ou-boum thrown back from the Malabar caves during the fateful expedition at the heart of the novel. ‘If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same – “ou-boum”.’
Will Self once recommend as an exercise reducing a novel to a single word (he suggested in the case of The Naked Lunch, for instance, that it would be ‘insect’). For A Passage to India, that keyword would be ‘muddle’ – a term that recurs, gradually shedding its cosiness and accreting a sense of existential indistinctness, a kind of cosmic flou that renders good intentions, indeed all human endeavour, futile. ‘I like mysteries,’ says Mrs Moore, the novel's moral core, ‘but I rather dislike muddles.’ Elsewhere, Forster talks with something like dread of a ‘spiritual muddledom’ for which ‘no high-sounding words can be found’.
The plot of this book is, at times, heart-poundingly dramatic, but Forster is careful to make sure that even this is founded on doubt and indecision. In fact, what one thinks of as ‘the plot’ of A Passage to India is a storyline that arises, reaches its climax, and is resolved entirely within the second of the book's three acts. What then, you might ask, is the point of parts one and three? Well, among other things they prevent the plot from seeming too tidy – there is always something before the beginning, something after the end, to frustrate neat conclusions. ‘Adventures do occur,’ he says, ‘but not punctually.’ Life isn't tidy – it's a muddle.
British India is a perfect setting for this kind of exploration: not only does it play host to numerous individual confusions, it is itself, as it were, the political embodiment of such a confusion. One of the wonderful things about this book is that the obvious hypocrisy and conflict between the English and the Indians is not left to stand alone, as a heavy-handed message, but is echoed by similar divisions between Muslim and Hindu, man and woman, young and old, devotee and atheist. Still, it is the gulf of understanding between the British rulers and their Indian subjects that provides the most interesting material for Forster's bitter social comedy. Most of the Brits are deliciously dislikable, couching their racism in patriotic slogans, droning through the national anthem every evening at the Club, and – like one of the wives – learning only enough of the language to speak to the servants (‘so she knew none of the politer forms, and of the verbs only the imperative mood’).
The heroes of this book are those that try to reach across this divide, or to challenge the assumptions of their own side.
‘Your sentiments are those of a god,’ she said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.
Trying to recover his temper, he said, ‘India likes gods.’
‘And Englishmen like posing as gods.’
These attempts don't work, and the reason they don't work is that cultural or racial divides are – the book suggests – only a special case of that ‘spiritual muddledom’ that is a universal constant. Still, the worldview isn't as bleak as it might seem. That famous ‘not yet’ in the book's closing lines is a lot more hopeful than a ‘no’, and if we're prevented from coming together by our tangled and violent past, that also raises the possibility that a better future can be laid down by the present we choose to enact now, every day, with each other. ‘For what is the present, after all,’ as Walt Whitman asked, ‘but a growth out of the past?’
I found this a really rewarding book, and much more than a portrait of a society that has long gone. The relations of the British to the Indian communities, both Hindu and Moslem and the relations of those communities to each other seem well drawn. The racism of the English is bound up strongly with the power politics of their presence in India - while they are happy to treat educated Indians on equal terms in England it is a very different case in India itself. Initially the book does seem to be dealing solely with the consequences of a racist society, but at the end seems rather more complex - dealing with the possibilities of friendship between the two nationalities in the political situation of British India.
Why I read it now: E. M. Forster is the LT author of the month and I just happened to have this one languishing on my book shelf.
Recommended: highly, for readers who enjoy historical novels, cultural diversity and humanitarian issues.
In the early 1920s, Forster worked in India as the private secretary for a Maharaja during the period of the British Raj. The Raj was a time of occupation of India by British diplomats and soldiers who imposed some controlled structure on the economic and legal system of the largely disparate states within the Eastern country loosely ruled by a monarchy. After returning to London from India, Forster published A Passage to India in 1924 based on his experiences during the period when British influence was waning and an Indian Independence movement was developing.
The novel is an interesting character study involving structure opposed to substance, self-control over impulse, conformity versus individual freedom, restriction of thought rather than tolerance, and arbitrary racial discrimination limiting open enculturation. There are several characters described in stereotypical ways with representatives of the British ruling and middle classes in the Raj and Hindu, "Moslem", and royal leaders within Indian society. These descriptions set the stage for the interaction of four main characters that illustrate the complexity of two cultures seemingly unyielding in their Western versus Eastern world views.
In the novel the reader's attention is focused on the interactions and perceptions of four main characters: Dr. Aziz, Miss Adela Quested, Cyril Fielding, and Mrs. Moor:
Dr. Aziz is an Indian physician who works at a British hospital. He is a Muslim man strongly influenced by his religion but intellectually active in his beliefs and impulsive in his emotions and actions. He is tolerant of differences in cultures within his country and the strained relationship between Indians and the British. The tolerance, however is largely on the surface, and when his religious beliefs and secular freedom are threatened by the actions of the Raj, he is quick to feel strong resentment.
Adela Quested is a young British teacher who has traveled to India to see if she and a British magistrate are compatible for marriage. Like Dr. Aziz, Adela seems outwardly open and tolerant to new experiences. She wants to learn more about the exotic Eastern culture of India. The reader sees that she is actually intolerant and frightened but fancies herself an enlightened woman willing to step beyond the conventions of her British character. Adela regresses to her British comfort zone in a panic when confronted with the mysterious and unstructured life of India.
Cyril Fielding is a teacher at a small British college for Indian citizens. Now in his early middle age, the unmarried administrator has maintained his life of personal intellectual and emotional freedom by keeping a low profile within the British foreign service system and maintaining an open attitude about British and Indian tension during the Raj. He seems to be more willing to understand the cultural differences between West and East than Adela because he has maintained a personal code of ethics largely hidden from both the British and Indian people in the rural district. He is a clever individual who has assumed a role that conforms minimally to the expectations of each culture. He is insightful and aware that his surface behavior is accepted with reservations by both groups and is content to have independence in the deep structure of his personality. Although Fielding is not an avowed homosexual, the reader gains some interesting indications from the character of Forster's private life. Unlike the author, Fielding returns to England, marries a very British woman, and returns to India a more structured man but largely conflicted in his hidden personal identification.
Mrs. Moore is an elderly British widower who has accompanied Adela during the trip from England to India. She is the mother of the British magistrate that the younger woman has come to visit. Mrs. Moore is a lifelong British subject who has reached the endpoint of caring, having lived her life for her children with a feminine stiff upper lip. In somewhat delicate health, the trip has been a major sacrifice for Mrs. Moore, but she has done her escort duty. Because of her end of life situation and active life review, she is open to the spiritual aspect of Indian life that is so different from her British structured religious beliefs. Unlike Adela, Mrs. Moore is willing to open herself to Eastern thoughts and beliefs with a substantial lowering of psychological defenses. She seeks answers to the question, what is the meaning of her life of service to her family that cost of her own freedom and dignity? Specifically, when can she stop taking responsibility for others and come to some meaningful resolution of the doubts about her life decisions? When faced with negative conclusions during her life review, she embraces a delusion of a tolerable, structured life back in her British home.
I highly recommend this novel (Forster's last published work of fiction) for readers who want to examine their own depth of understanding of life and their tolerance of the lives of others in chaotic times. An interesting experience I had reading the novel was an illusive desire to live during the early decades of the 20th Century in India to see how I would react personally to a rapidly changing world perspective. Of course, parallel, dramatic cultural challenges exist in the U. S. today, but perhaps we are too close in time to the effects of them to develop the comprehensive point of view presented in A Passage to India.
Forster's strength lies in his ability to connect us to the characters and places, perhaps he does this too well as I wanted to read idly on about those characters. Forster also does a good job of understand both the British and Indian mindsets of this time period.
Forster’s novel details the conflict between the colonizers and the colonized, England and India respectively, with narrow brushstrokes. We learn about how this tension infects through personal relationships between men and women, men and men, English and Indians, Muslims and Hindus. We also are made to contemplate if this conflict can be overcome even on a personal level, much less a diplomatic one. The short answer to both is a hesitant denial.
The relationships in the book rest on uneven ground. The adoration and admiration between Aziz and Mrs. Moore or later Aziz and Fielding are thrown into doubt when muddled by the conflict and suspicion birthed by Aziz’s trial. The remainder of the book seeps with uneasiness and doubt regarding the validity and sincerity of Fielding and Aziz’s bond, with Aziz erroneously believing Fielding is to marry Adela. The first half of the book builds on Adela’s uncertainty in marrying Ronny, her state of mind eventually leading to Aziz’s trial when she falsely accuses him of assault.
Alison Sainsbury asserts that the impossibility of of a bond between England and India hinges on the sentiment of the book’s final line: “‘they said in their hundred voices, No, not yet, and the sky said ‘not there’” (362). Sainsbury notes that Forster “illustrates how imperial rule distorts human relations”. This is evident in Aziz’s and FIelding’s last conversation where they sportingly debate about colonization, each espousing a distaste for the other’s country and its inhabitants. Fielding thinks, “Aziz was a memento, a trophy, they were proud of each other, yet they must inevitably part” (358). These two examples highlight how relations between the two countries and peoples have been constructed by imperialism, and how to divert from that specific mentality is to create a psychic disturbance whereby any bonds of friendship are inherently distorted and personal communication poisoned by historical prejudice. It is almost impossible for Aziz and Fielding to not see each other as specifically tied to the historicism of English and Indian, respectively, once other voices such as Ronny Heaslop or Hamidullah intervene and reassert the the venom of historical conflict. To say that this conflict can be overcome by individual friendships, or even that such friendships can thrive, is to assert the possibility that such venom will fade, and even though nearly a century has passed since Forster’s novel was published, tensions linger and such a reality is questionable.
The country is beautifully described, but the meat of the story revolves around racial conflict.
At the caves, a suspicious assault on Adela takes place, and in her disoriented state she falsely accuses Aziz as her “attacker.” When the case goes to trial, Ronny sends his mother home rather than let her testify, because she believes Aziz is innocent. When Adela is called to the stand she recants her earlier testimony and denies the charge against Aziz, claiming she was and is confused about the situation. After Adela changes her story, Ronny breaks the engagement. Ronny believes the stereotype that Indian men lust after white women. Mr. Felding, an Englishman, but also a friend of the Indian doctor tries to remain loyal. Even so Aziz has lost his faith in “whites” after the ordeal he went through when held suspect for the crime.
The misunderstanding of intentions can’t be avoided when considering the different beliefs of these two cultures.
Forster leaves us to ponder the difficulties that mixing race and cultures can bring, as well as the danger of prejudices.
I recommend that this book not be overlooked. And if you think I’ve spoiled the story by revealing too much, there are many parts not mentioned that will surprise you and keep you reading until the end.
At its heart, is the friendship between the Muslim Indian professional, Dr. Aziz, and the English dowager, Mrs. Moore, who has accompanied her son’s presumptive fiancée to meet him in Chandrapore. Aziz, Mrs. Moore and Mr. Fielding, a British schoolmaster, struggle to bridge the abyss existing between the British and native cultures. For their troubles, they are punished, each in distinctive ways.
Having seen the movie, an excellent flick by the way, I was intimately familiar with the tale. The Victorian style of writing, however, really brought the story to life and breathed life into the characters. Some may find the writing too florid or archaic for their tastes, but I found it beneficial in setting a mood for the story.
While the driving force behind the book is the social interaction (or lack of) and the cultural divide between the British administrators and what they view as their morally and intellectually inferior native Indian subjects, a subtext is the mistrust and tension existing between the Hindu and Moslem religious communities.
As Aziz becomes increasingly disenchanted with his British overlords, he begins to fall in with Indian nationalists. The question of the viability of an “Indian” state, in the presence of such a politically, ethnically and religiously fragmented populace is periodically raised. Very perceptive writing, coming as it does over twenty years prior to Indian independence, civil war and ultimately partition.
This work takes place in the India controlled by Britain. It deals with racism, religious differences, and political matters. In many ways this commentary is applicable today.
Forster is brilliant--he gives you a feel for two cultures colliding and each time I picked up this book, I was swept into India. I loved the personification used in descriptions of various attributes of the landscape. I could feel the oppression of the sun and the mystery of the place. The author does a marvelous job at setting the mood and feel surrounding the events of the novel.
As I sit and think about the book, there are several scenes which stick out as having evoked strong emotion. First, after the intensity of the second part of the book, "Caves," Fielding, one of the main characters, returns to the west. He enters the Mediterranean-the Western culture-and it was as if my own mind cleared. Fielding, although very at home in India, came back into the familiar--what he knew and loved. Secondly, in the last part of the book, "Temple," we return to India. Forster introduces a religious festival, celebrating the birth of their God. The celebration is messy, heavy, joyous, and beautiful. I wished my own worship could be so alive. This chapter transitions and sets a tone--but you could read it as a stand alone story.
Final Verdict: I LOVED this book! Read it.