The true India slid by unnoticed

passage to indiaA Passage to India
by E M Forster

This is the second time I’ve tried reading this book and I almost didn’t finish it again, but this time I was near the end when I got a little bored. For the most part I found it gripping and beautifully written, if a little troubling when it comes to race and politics.

The thing is, it’s a story about how problematic colonialism can be; effectively it’s about racism, and yet it itself reads as racist. It was written in the 1920s so that wouldn’t normally be a surprise, but when Forster has taken race as a central theme you’d think he’d have the self-awareness to avoid his own racist remarks. Unless they’re all intended ironically, which is a possibility, but in that case the point being made is just as obscured as if it were not ironic.

“She continued: ‘What a terrible river! What a wonderful river!’ and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness.”

The story centres around Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor in British-run Chandrapore (a fictional city in north-east India). He is well liked by everyone and has a large circle of close friends from different religions, different backgrounds. So it is doubly surprising when he is accused of assault by newly arrived Englishwoman Adela Quested.

There is some confusion around the circumstances of the assault but all the British rally around Miss Quested and her fiance Mr Heaslop, a local administrator, with the only exception being the teacher Mr Fielding. Anglo-Indian relations, already tense, rise to a crescendo during the court case.

Forster’s descriptions are beautifully written, but from the first page there is a certain disdain for Chandrapore that I found confusing. Is this supposed to be the way an English newcomer sees the city – filthy and charmless? Is the suggestion that the presence of the British rulers has detracted from the city? But in that case why are the gardens of the British clubhouse described as the only spot of beauty?

Although individual characters have some nuance, there is a tendency toward generalisation and caricature, particularly in relation to nationality and religion. Hindus are all A, Muslims are all B, Parsis are all C, Englishmen are all D and Englishwomen are all basically D but without any power or, for the most part, intelligence (Forster’s own view or an ironic reflection of the opinion of the English men?).

“[Miss Quested was] contemplating the hills. How lovely they suddenly were! But she couldn’t touch them. In front, like a shutter, fell a vision of her married life. She and Ronny…would see the Lesleys and the Callendars and the Turtons and the Burtons…while the true India slid by unnoticed. Colour would remain – the pageant of birds in the early morning, brown bodies white turbans, idols whose flesh was scarlet or blue…Perched up on the seat of a dogcart she would see them. But the force that lies behind colour and movement would escape her…She would see India always as a frieze, never as a spirit.”

Clearly Forster is using examples to draw wider conclusions but this tended to jar with me, even when there were occasional examples that disprove the generalisation. Aziz, for example, is a Muslim but a non-believing one and does not support the female seclusion that is common in Chandrapore. He is an educated, well-spoken doctor who writes poetry and likes to talk about the Indian independence movement with his friends but, at least at the start of the novel, he is happy to work for the British. Aziz’s friend Professor Godbole, a Hindu Brahmin who works with Mr Fielding at the local school, at times appears ridiculous with his mysticism, but he is also an important broker of peace.

Forster describes the British negatively as well. They are unyielding, un-self-aware egotists with no interest in truly understanding or mingling with the local population. Miss Quested is depicted as naive for expressing a desire to see “the real India”, with no real clue as to what that means. But she also comes across as less racist than her compatriots because she at least shows an interest, an awareness of how segregated society is and how that perhaps isn’t how it should be.

Above all, it’s a story of the failure of colonialism, about two nationalities that just don’t understand each other or really try to. An early clue to this is given by two similar incidents that happen for different reasons. When we meet Dr Aziz he is called late at night to attend to the home of Major Callendar, the civil surgeon, but on arrival finds that Callendar has gone out without leaving a message. His carriage is snapped up by two Englishwomen who simply assume it has been sent for them, leaving Aziz to walk the long way home. A few days later, Miss Quested and her chaperone Mrs Moore have arranged to visit a local Hindu couple but the promised carriage never arrives. Though they never receive a proper explanation, Aziz suggests that perhaps the local couple were ashamed of their home. Indeed, Aziz and Fielding are rare examples of characters trying to truly communicate with and understand each other’s race. Their frankness with each other is all the more striking against the backdrop of disinterest and separatism.

“Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it…Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere.”

I want to believe, in the face of this often-insightful dissection of the inherent racism in colonialism, that the narrative’s own racist moments are ironic. Forster does seem to be searching for ways in which social divisions (class as well as race and religion) can be overcome and there is a distinctly sad tone whenever this fails. But Forster was a product of his times and perhaps there is a limit to his ability to dissect this topic in a way that is entirely free from prejudice and assumption.

First published in 1924 by Edward Arnold.

Source: I bought this a long time ago secondhand; I don’t really remember when or where.

Challenges: This counts towards the Classics Club and the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge.