EM Forster’s classic novel of India under the British Raj examines the dark side of the expatriate experience. Although not absolutely necessary, it helps to understand a little of the history of England’s presence in India, because, central to the novel’s core, is the oppressor’s fascination with and repugnance of the oppressed – and vice versa.
Cast of Characters
Forster introduces his characters in order of importance, beginning with the Marabar Hills, 20 miles away from the city of Chandrapore. And, make no mistake, Marabar becomes the central character, acting on the human characters in dramatic and unexpected ways!
Next we meet Dr. Aziz, a young Muslim physician who works for the British in their hospital, and a group of his friends. They are discussing whether it is possible to be friends with an Englishman. Hamidullah, a lawyer who was trained in England, takes the position that it is possible – but only in England, not in India. He tells Aziz:
“It is impossible here, Aziz! The red-nosed boy has again insulted me in Court. I do not blame him. He was told that he ought to insult me. Until lately he was quite a nice boy, but the others have got hold of him.”
“Yes, they have no chance here, that is my point. They come out intending to be gentlemen, and are told it will not do. Look at Lesley, look at Blakiston, now it is your red-nosed boy, and Fielding will go next. Why, I remember when Turton came out first. It was in another part of the Province. You fellows will not believe me, but I have driven with Turton in his carriage – Turton! Oh yes, we were once quite intimate. He has shown me his stamp collection.”
“He would expect you to steal it now. Turton! But red-nosed boy will be far worse than Turton!”
“I do not think so. They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better. I give any Englishman two years. … And I give any Englishwoman six months. All are exactly alike.”
After some further discussion, Hamidullah states, “The English take and do nothing. I admire them.”
“We all admire them” is the response.
Aziz receives an urgent message from Major Callender, his superior at the hospital, ordering Aziz to report to him immediately. When Aziz arrives at the bungalow he finds Callender has gone out, leaving no message, and Callender’s wife and another English woman snub Aziz.
He stops on his way home at his favorite mosque, and suddenly an Englishwoman steps out into the moonlight. He shouts at her:
“Madam, this is a mosque, you have no right here at all; you should have taken off your shoes; this is a holy place for Moslems.”
“I have taken them off.”
“I left them at the entrance.”
“Then I ask your pardon. … I am truly sorry for speaking.”
“Yes, I was right, was I not? If I remove my shoes, I am allowed?”
“Of course, but so few ladies take the trouble, especially if thinking no one is there to see.”
“That makes no difference. God is here.”
They converse, and Aziz learns that she is the mother of City Magistrate Ronald Heaslop, the red-nosed boy. She has walked over from the Club, where the English are watching a performance of a play she had seen in London several years before.
Adela Quested has traveled from England with Mrs. Moore to decide whether she wants to marry Ronny Heaslop. After her adventure at the Mosque, Mrs. Moore returns to the Club, where Adela greets her with the statement: “I want to see the real India.” She repeats it to Ronny later.
“The request struck him as comic, and he called out to another passer-by: ‘Fielding! How’s one to see the real India?’ ‘Try seeing Indians,’ the man answered, and vanished.
“ ‘As if one could avoid seeing them,’ sighed Mrs. Lesley
“ ‘I’ve avoided,’ said Miss Quested. ‘Excepting my own servant, I’ve scarecely spoken to an Indian since landing.’
“ ‘Oh, lucky you.’
“ ‘But I want to see them.’
“She became the centre of an amused group of ladies. One said, ‘Wanting to see Indians! How new that sounds!’ Another, ‘Natives! Why, fancy!’ A third, more serious, said, ‘Let me explain. Natives don’t respect one any the more after meeting one, you see.’
“ ‘That occurs after so many meetings.’
“But the lady … continued: … ‘I was a nurse in a Native State. One’s only hope was to hold sternly aloof.
“ ‘ Even from one’s patients?’
“ ‘Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die,’ said Mrs. Callender.”
Mr. Turton, the Collector offers Adela a Bridge Party.
“He explained to her what that was – not the game, but a party to bridge the gulf between East and West; the expression was his own invention, and amused all who heard it.
“ ‘I only want those Indians whom you come across socially – as your friends’ Adela told him.
” ‘Well, we don’t come across them socially,’ he said, laughing.”
Friendship and Betrayal
The Bridge Party is duly held, and it is an utter failure. The British, with the exception of Adela and Mrs. Moore and the Turtons, whose duty it is to be hospitable, hold themselves aloof in one area, and the Indians stay in another area. The few conversations are stilted.
Ronny explains to his mother, “We’re not pleasant in India, and we don’t intend to be pleasant. We’ve something more important to do.” His mother thinks he talks
“like an intelligent and embittered boy. … One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.”
Mrs. Moore and Aziz meet again at a party given by Mr. Fielding, the Principal of Government College, at his school. Adela Quested is there, as well as a Hindu friend of Fielding’s, Narayan Godbole.
In an expansive moment, Aziz invites them all to come see him, then turns the invitation into an expedition to the Marabar Hills because he is ashamed of his shabby bungalow and doesn’t want to expose it to the English ladies.
The Marabar Hills, which look beautiful from the distance of Chandrapore, are known for their numerous caves. The caves are absolutely round and featureless, and have the distinction of turning every sound made within to a resonating “boum.”
The expedition starts cheerfully at the train station, but disaster ensues. Before the end of the day, Adela Quested is in the hospital, Aziz is in jail and Fielding has been cast out by the English. Levels of mutual distrust among the British and Indian communities for one another become elevated to new highs.
Forster skillfully weaves together threads of misunderstanding, isolation, mistrust, cultural and gender differences, betrayal and vengeance. The story moves slowly and introspectively.
In the end, Forster shows that at least one Indian and one Englishman can be friends, despite their lack of cultural understanding.
A Passage to India is not an easy book to read. The subject matter is disturbing, and the writing style is densely analytical without a lot of action. However, anyone interested in the cultural aspects of living in another country can learn a lot about the pitfalls of doing so by reading this novel.