Feb 6, 2006

Book Review: A Passage To India

Left: Photo of Forster courtesy of emforster.de

EM (Edward Morgan) Forster, New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1978 (1924), 371 pages.

Forster’s book examined the relations between British colonialists and their Muslim and Hindu subjects in pre-independence India. The setting of the novel was in Chandrapore, a nondescript city along the Ganges River; Forster began the book in 1913, but did not publish it until 1924. Through his characters Forster excoriated the arrogance of the British in India, while also pointing out the disturbing example of some Indians who sought to improve their lot in life with a futile sycophancy toward their British rulers.

The main characters of the novel are Dr. Aziz, a widowed Muslim doctor, and Fielding, a British expatriate who teaches at an exclusive prep school for wealthy Indians. Aziz was falsely accused of a crime against the honor of an English woman visiting her fiancé in Chandrapore; the novel revolves around the trial and eventual exoneration of Aziz. The woman eventually recanted her story, but not until the trial. Forster’s novel works as both narrative and symbolism; the characters also represent the larger components of the Hindu, Muslim, and European social groups in colonial British India.

Forster may have used the character of Ronny Heaslop in a symbolic manner to represent the worst extremes of British colonialism. Heaslop, a career “sun-dried” bureaucrat, believes that his sole mission is to assist in the governance of India, and that he need not concern himself with the manner in which he treats Indians. In one segment, when he insulted Aziz by ignoring him, Heaslop later commented: “Well, it’s nothing I said…I never even spoke to him.”

The novel provides a wealth of vignettes that expose the racism of the British. Mr. McBryde, the District Superintendent of Police, couched his racial beliefs in geography:
McBryde was shocked at his [Aziz’s] downfall, but no Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climactic zones. The theory ran: “All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of the latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance – we should be like them if we settled here.”
The character of Aziz changed over the course of the novel, moving from a near-worship of all things British to a bitter realism that he could never be treated with respect as long as he lived and worked in a British-dominated society. “My heart is for my own people henceforward,” he declared after the events of his wrongful incarceration. “I wish no Englishman or Englishwoman to be my friend.” Despite all of his burdens, Aziz still befriended the son of the late Mrs. Moore, and reaffirmed his friendship with Fielding.

Forster foresaw a number of world events in his novel. Aziz correctly predicted a second world war, and the novel not only described the inability of the British to recognize the disintegration of their Indian Empire, but also the coming rift between Hindus and Muslims in the period of Indian and Pakistani independence. Finally, the novel hints at a gradual decay of the British Empire itself, as the administrators – protected only by the thin walls of the Club – delude themselves into thinking that a handful of proud imperialists can forever keep at bay a nation of some 200 million souls.

Forster spent a fair amount of time examining gender relations, and the practices of the different cultures toward women. The concept of purdah received significant attention, and Aziz argued in a poem that this practice was a barrier to Indian emancipation: “The purdah must go…otherwise we shall never be free.”

Interestingly, Forster described the English practicing a form of purdah, perhaps subconsciously absorbed from their association with indigenous peoples. It was quite a scandal for a British woman to be in the company of anyone other than a fellow British citizen, and Fielding was wrongly accused of abandoning Miss Quested at the Marabar caves. This not only resulted in leaving her at the mercy of the natives, but Fielding thus also broke another social taboo: British men had a chivalric obligation to defend the honor of British women. Forster’s book provides a fascinating look at colonial British India, and benefits from the fact that he traveled widely on the subcontinent.


Stephanie said...

Wow! This seems like an interesting book to read. Do you think it would be at a regular public library? Or would I probably have to loan it from one of the colleges?

historymike said...

This is Forster's coup de grace, Stephanie, and I would imagine that every library worth its salt would have a copy.

It was also made into a 1984 movie that is quite watchable, although a little too pro-British Empire for my tastes.

Stephanie said...

I'll definitely read the book before I decide whether or not I watch the movie.

Thank you, I always appreciate good reading material.