Friday, December 19, 2014

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (37 down 63 to go)

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

When his spirits were up he felt that the English are a comic institution, and he enjoyed being misunderstood by them. ~ Dr. Aziz

This is the first time I’ve read A Passage to India or E.M. Forster. The novel is a third person narrative set in the fictional town of Chandrapore in northeast India. It takes place under British Raj (rule), in the early 1920s and involves relationships between members of the Anglo-Indian community. I think you could call Forster’s writing modernist and/or humanist in style. He is also part of the Bloomsbury Group.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars



I had no idea of the plot other than the obvious: that it had something to do with India. I’m just uncannily perceptive that way. The story is about a rare friendship between an Indian and a Britton. The Indian, Dr. Aziz, is a Muslim physician who was skeptical that Indians could befriend the British until he meets Cyril Fielding the headmaster of the government-run college for Indians. Dr. Aziz finds Fielding to be progressive, accommodating, and unprejudiced. Their newfound friendship is put to the test when Dr. Aziz is accused of assaulting Adela Quested, a young unmarried British woman.

Miss Quested only recently arrived in India to consider marriage to the British magistrate, Ronny Heaslop. Most of the British make no effort to understand Indian culture or custom, but Miss Quested wants to experience “the real India”. To that end, Dr. Aziz arranges a trip to a local tourist spot, the Marabar Caves. However, things go badly at the caves and Miss Quested accuses Dr. Aziz of assaulting her.

Dr. Aziz is not likely to get a fair trial in the British system, but a trial ensues and pent up racial tensions erupt. Fielding is vocal about his belief in Dr. Aziz’ innocence and is ostracized by his compatriots. In spite of this loyalty, the trial puts the friendship between Fielding and Dr. Aziz to an agonizing test.

Fallout from the trial destroys several relationships, and damages others. Years later, one of the principal characters opines that Indians and British cannot be friends until India is free of British Raj…Even the earth and the sky seem to say, Not yet.

The prejudice of the British was troubling and almost unbelievable. Yet, I am inclined to believe Forster knew what he was writing about. The ignorance and hypocrisy would be almost comical, if not so maddening. I might have found it less offensive if the characters were just vile human beings who hated anyone different from themselves, but that wasn’t really the case. Most were actually decent people painfully deluded about their own superiority.

For instance, early in the story, Dr. Aziz removes his own collar stud and lends it to Fielding. He does so before other guests arrive for luncheon. Fielding doesn’t know Dr. Aziz gave him the stud off his own collar and Dr. Aziz, trying to be gracious, just hopes his collar doesn’t ride up. Ronny Heaslop notices Dr. Aziz’ collar, but says nothing at the time. Later, and behind Dr. Aziz’ back, Heaslop expresses scorn for Dr. Aziz and his appalling lack of refinement in failing to wear a collar stud.

Almost comical.

I’m certain Heaslop genuinely believed that failure to dress in proper British fashion was an indictment of Dr. Aziz’ worth as a human being. But of course Heaslop was ignorant: ignorant that Dr. Aziz knew how to dress properly, and ignorant of the stupidity of his own ethnocentric prejudices.

The British were not alone in fault. Many of the Indians nurtured prejudice and stereotypes of the British, but more ironically, the Muslim Indians (called Mohammedans in the novel), and the Hindu Indians also held each other in contempt. As I say, the British were not alone, but their position of power gave greater consequence to their prejudice.

The novel serves as an exposé of the ethnocentric beliefs and the resulting abuses of British imperialism. As such, it was highly effective. I thought it was a worthwhile story, important even, but not quite thoroughly enjoyable. There were a few moments that were quite riveting, but at other times it transitioned rather abruptly. Still, I’m glad I read it; it gave me a glimpse of a time and place of which I am largely ignorant.

Excerpts:

Narrative regarding Dr. Aziz and a British soldier after they have had a friendly polo match: They reined up again, the fire of good fellowship in their eyes. But it cooled with their bodies, for athletics can only raise a temporary glow. Nationality was returning, but before it could exert its poison they parted, saluting each other. “If only they were all like that.” Each thought.

Narrative regarding the British official investigating the alleged crime: He had constantly to remind himself that, in the eyes of the law, Aziz was not yet guilty, and the effort fatigued him. (My commentary…interesting choice of words there…not he was innocent until proven guilty, but he was not YET guilty.)

5 comments:

  1. Excellent summary of the novel. Based on other reading I have done about the period I think the attitudes were pretty representative of the time. I am a big fan of Forster as I love the way he depicts places and people with all their failings but so fully that you can't help but see their side of things even when you are horrified by their actions/ideas.

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    1. Thanks for the feedback Mary. I've you've no objection, I'll list your blog on my blogroll...feel free to do the same with mine. Cheers

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  2. Fantastic review. Too bad you didn't like this book as well as I did, but to each their own. I had forgotten about the incident when Dr. Aziz gave his own collar stud in order to oblige. I feel bad for him since he was SO obliging of the Brits, and yet only got scorned and taken advantage of. I understand completely his own scorn of the Brits by the end of the book.

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  3. I tried reading his 'Room With a View, but dropped it after a few chapters. His writing style really annoyed me & it felt clunky at times so I haven't tried reading any of his others, although the India book has been one I've thought of reading for years.

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    1. Well...I'd say give it a try. It's my only familiarity with Forster, so I don't know how it compares, but I'm glad to have read it.

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