First published in 1924 – A Passage to India weaves together two complex themes, the friendship between men of different cultures and the colonialism and racism that continually divided those two cultures in British India. E M Forster is a severe chronicler of the British Raj in this novel, although neither British nor Indian come out on top in his story: Forster does not appear to take sides.
When Adele Quested arrives in British India with Mrs Moore – the mother of the city magistrate Ronnie Heaslop, – they are both determined to see something of the real India.
“She watched the moon, whose radiance stained with primrose the purple of the surrounding sky. In England the moon had seemed dead and alien; here she was caught in the shawl of night together with earth and all the other stars.”
Mrs Moore becomes acquainted with Dr Aziz after a moonlit encounter in a local mosque. Mr Fielding a college principle exists outside of the British club – he is a moderate thinking man, unprejudiced he is happy in the company of Indians – and so regarded with a certain amount of suspicion by the British. When the Collector – issues garden party invitations to local Indian gentlemen Dr Aziz finally gets to meet Mr Fielding – and a friendship is immediately born. Their friendship is not an easy one – mirroring the complexities of the relationship between the ruling white’s and both the educated and subservient Indians – they are continually misunderstanding one another.
An outing to the famous Marabar caves gives Mrs Moore and Adele Quested the chance they want to see the real India. However Miss Quested comes rushing out of the caves in great distress – and returns without the rest of her party – having apparently accused Aziz of some kind of assault. The British rise up against Aziz in defence of a young woman none of them had particularly liked or taken much notice of. Fielding though believes Aziz to be innocent – which puts him even more at odds with his countrymen and women.
The aftermath of his trial leaves Aziz cynical and bitter – his fragile relationship with Fielding is put under greater strain. Although Fielding is sympathetic to his Indian friends – he is still English and for a bruised Aziz represents much of the system which was at work to bring him down.
There are many stereotypes in this novel, stereotypes which would have been particularly recognisable at the time this novel was first published. E M Forster was exposing the British Raj’s racist injustices at a time when in India itself there was beginning the first rumble of the push to Independence from Britain. Forster’s conclusion was sombre but realistic. The following passage coming right at the end.
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.” But the horses didn’t want it — they swerved apart: the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temple, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they emerged from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices “No, not yet,” and the sky said “No, not there.”
I first read A Passage to India about twenty years ago. I loved it then – and later loved the film just as much. I have remembered it with affection ever since. Luckily I still love it now. I was surprised though by my memory of Dr Aziz – in my memory he remained a wholly sympathetic character – all the flawed characters I had thought were the British. However I see now that in fact Aziz becomes less sympathetic after the incident in the Marabar caves. Not surprisingly given what had happened to him – so his attitude and bitterness remain understandable – but I found this side of him more irritating this time around. I did love Mr Fielding still too and Mrs Moore. I had also forgotten that this is quite a slow – wordy read – I don’t mind that however – and I liked many of Forster’s descriptions of India.