E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India, is a bitingly caustic look at race relations in British India. Anyone with any knowledge of the British Empire will know that the average British attitude towards any indigenous person in the colonies was a blend of condescension, racism, and paternalism. All of these attitudes are on display in varying intensities in this novel, along with the attitudes of the Indians (anger, frustration, hatred, occasionally aspirational). Two Englishwomen arrive in Chandrapore (fictional) to “see the real India” only to find two entrenched camps of people who are civil on the surface but absolutely loathe each other. One of the women causes a legal incident that threatens to destabilize the entire city—and offering us readers a chance to see what happens when someone throws a metaphorical matchstick on dry tinder.
Miss Quested has traveled to India for two reasons. The unofficial reason is that she will be renewing her acquaintance with Mr. Heaslop, the chief magistrate of Chandrapore. Mr. Heaslop’s mother, Mrs. Moore, very much wants the pair to marry; the pair have traveled together to see Heaslop. The second and official reason is that both Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to see India. I wrote it quotes before because India is such a vast country, with so many people and ways of living, that one could spend a lifetime trying to see everything. Still, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to try. Their initial efforts—a garden party with Indian and English guests, tea with a smaller group of Indians and Englishmen—fizzle into embarrassing failures. There’s too much history and too much prejudice on both sides for the ladies to make much headway.
Dr. Aziz, a complicated man who works as a surgeon and doctor for the English in a hospital, offers another chance for Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to see some “real India” by inviting them to the famed caves outside of the city. Aziz is fascinating because he is able to see the good in some English like his friend Dr. Fielding, but is infuriated by the casual racism and constant snubbing of the rest of the English. He is an educated, interesting man, yet he is always just another Indian to most of the English people he meets. In spite of all this, he offers to take Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to the caves. Unfortunately for him, the plan starts to fall apart almost immediately. Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore’s English chaperone and the local expert fail to make the train. Mrs. Moore has a bad reaction to the first cave. After she drops out of the little expedition, Miss Quested runs from another cave, into the cacti and sun, shouting that Dr. Aziz has assaulted her.
By this point, almost half of the book has pointed out just how fragile the civility between Indian and British is. The arrest and trial of Dr. Aziz on very flimsy evidence (mostly just racism than actual physical evidence) spark the sub-surface fury of the Indians. The fury of the Indians reminds the English of “the Mutiny” (the Indian Rebellion of 1857). Both camps circle the wagons, spreading hysterical rumors, and making plans for what might happen if things do turn violent. Forster writes:
But [Mr. McBryde] looked at him sternly, because he was keeping his head. He had not gone mad at the phrase “an English girl fresh from England,” he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed. All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated. (181*)
Affairs march on ahead of Miss Quested who, on reflection, isn’t entirely sure what happened that day in the caves after all.
The caves and the subsequent trial form an early climax in A Passage to India. The rest of the book centers mostly on Dr. Aziz, Dr. Fielding, and, to a lesser extend, Miss Quested, as they try to put their worldviews back together. At the beginning of the book, each was willing to reach across the aisle, so to speak, and form friendships that their co-nationalists warned them against. Many men, British and Indian, point to their long years of experience as their authority on the futility of fraternization.
I was expecting A Passage to India to end on a very depressing note. It is rather depressing for most of its chapters. And yet, there’s a strange feeling of stubborn hope at the end of the book. Dr. Aziz is not quite ready to stop trying, no matter what the English have done to him (though he is much more reserved than he used to be). Near the end of the book, Aziz meets the youngest of Mrs. Moore’s children and is able to form a friendship because the boy has no preconceptions of what he’s supposed to think of Indians. It’s possible, the book suggests, that both Indians and British can set aside their histories and prejudices and built anew in the future. It will be hard, but it’s not completely impossible.
The other thing that lightens A Passage to India is the commentary provided by the narrator. Everyone is a target for the unnamed third-person narrator. My favorite line comes from the furor after the attack on Miss Quested: “[The Englishmen] had started speaking of ‘women and children’—that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times” (202). The book is packed with small, pithy observations that puncture all of the deluded or bloviating character. So, even though this is a very serious book, about very serious things, the commentary had me snickering throughout.
* Quote is from the Rosetta Books kindle edition.