No. 708: A Passage to India By E. M. Forster
E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel is a zeitgeist of the British Raj rule. Exploring the tensions between the British and their native Indians, A Passage to India is a masterly portrait of a society caught between conflicts of an imperialist regime and the ripple effects of engrained social bias. The politicalised landscape of British India dominating every interaction between characters and heightening the surface differences between human beings and raising the historic debate of nature versus nurture.
The plot focuses upon three leading characters: Adela Quested, Cyril Fielding and Dr Aziz. When British-born Adela Quested and Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they are each ‘desirous of seeing the real India’ (p. 18). The India they have experienced up until that point has the glean of "tourism" shining from every point. The natives modify their behaviour in accordance to insular prejudice of the resident English. These changes in behaviour impact the authenticity of Mrs Moore's and Miss Quested's experience of India. Upon meeting Mrs Moore in a mosque, Dr Aziz, a cultivated Indian Muslim, becomes a figure of intrigue for the women; he agrees to guide the women around the “real India” they seek. However, during an excursion to the Marabar Caves, an incident occurs which results in an ensuing scandal. The dishonourable act rouses violent passions and bigotry amongst both the local English and indigenous Indian communities of the Chandrapore region. The event becomes a subject of huge contention between two tribes of people residing in India under the British Raj and essentially pits one race against the other, further denigrating the fragile relationship between the two.
Forster’s novel is quite literally a snapshot of British-Indo relations against the backdrop of the British Raj and Indian Independence movement during the twenties. The text ruminates upon Forster's own travelling experiences and his own experience of India under the British Raj. There is prejudice, distrust, condescension and blame. Each race appears to believe themselves superior in different ways. However, there are few exceptions to that judgmental perspective. For instance, each protagonist openly defies naturalised ideologies, at least in the beginning of the novel. However, over the course of a life-changing event involving violation and accusations, the innate prejudices are reignited.
The most striking element within A Passage to India is the gradual acclimation of the reader's insight into the tale. The novel is unveiled slowly revealing the complex nature of life and social standing in Chandrapore. However, in the vein of Middlemarch, readers are privy to the entire world of the text: all of the little elements that constitute the world of Chandrapore, the construct the society depicted. However, in a sudden and technical move, Forster checkmates the society he has built and entirely fragments the reality the reader has come to know. The mastery of this storytelling technique is to admired. It is incredibly intelligent and demonstrates an academic grasp of the literary craft. One could liken the experience of reading to that of skiing. The first half of the novel is the climb, one admires the narrative just as one marvels the surroundings. However, the latter part of the novel is the descent, when one is confronted with the unwelcome reality that they are upon a black slope, and their sense of security is entirely cast away.
The text is stylistically and technically beautiful. The writing style is engaging and compelling to read, and yet I believe there are certain elements that prevent a five star rating.
In my opinion, the ending of the novel felt rather hasty. In a sense the conclusion was “Disney-ified” – everyone permitted a moralistic ending, despite the harsh realities characters endured in their pasts. It seemed as if Forster wanted all of the characters to have a happy ending to invoke an overarching moral and rather than adding to the reading experience, however, instead this detracts from the diegesis presented.
I understand that Forster wishes to educate and illuminate his readership. Presenting a world that they have unlikely experienced for themselves first hand. He attempted to educate his readers about the difficult relationships between racial groups in India, to establish the major ethnic and social issues to enable greater understanding and implement change. His message is that redemption and friendship are possible after the tirades and restrictions of a colonial agenda. He intimates that engrained power imbalances fuelled by racial profiling hinder human interaction. Whilst his message is inspiring and optimistic; I think interactions between an oppressed and dominating class are not simple to negotiate and histories of subjugation are harder to forgive. Personally, the forgiveness of Dr Aziz was too much to swallow. However, I do respect Forester’s overarching theory and his narrative drive to deconstruct colonial prejudices and judgments.
In conclusion, I think that this is a text that everyone should read. Whilst providing beautiful scapes of rural India and illustrating a snapshot into India's past, the text has resonance for today's world. In a post-Brexit, Trump world, the text asks readers to challenge racial preconceptions and notions of ruling colonial influences over native underdog. This is an incredible lesson which can be extrapolated to contemporary life and drives people to ignore detrimental judgements of those around us. And that is why I would recommend all read this and ready themselves for the rollercoaster ride of emotions prevalent at the heart of the text.
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