Monday, August 22, 2011
Book Review - Classics - A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
I own the DVD of David Lean’s marvelous film adaptation of E.M. Forester’s novel, A Passage to India, and I’ve watched and loved that DVD several times. Until recently, however, I’d never read the book. I knew I was missing something special, but I wasn’t aware of just how special. If I had been, I certainly would have read this wonderful book sooner.
A Passage to India takes place in and around the fictional town of Chandrapore, India at the height of Britain’s power and control in that country. The perilous balance of East and West in Chandrapore is upset when two Englishwomen – the older Mrs. Moore and the younger Miss Quested – arrive in Chandrapore. Mrs. Moore is there to visit her son, the City Magistrate, Ronny Heaslop, and see him married and settled, and Miss Quested is there because she’s Mrs. Moore’s choice of wife for Ronny. The two women, who know little-to-nothing about social situations or politics in the Orient, want to see “the real India,” and they want to meet a “real Indian.”
Because he likes Mrs. Moore so much, the young, kindly Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, who is a respected Medical Officer at the Chandrapore Hospital, impulsively invites the two women – and several men, of course – on an excursion into the hills to visit the renowned Marabar Caves, and it’s at the caves where something goes terribly wrong, resulting in Miss Quested accusing Dr. Aziz of a crime, a crime that seems, on its face, to be believable due to an entire series of unfortunate events surrounding the outing.
With Dr. Aziz standing accused of a crime against an Englishwoman, Forster has set the stage for a full exploration of the East-West divide that existed in colonial India and the impossibility of lasting friendship between persons of the two cultures. As one might predict, the Indians support Dr. Aziz, while the English, who, for the most part, believe the Indians to be guilty of any charge brought against them by an English person, support Miss Quested. The one and only exception is Cecil Fielding, the Principal of the Government College, who truly believes in Dr. Aziz’s innocence, and who has the courage to break with his own countrymen in order to stand in support of the Indian doctor. In a very real sense, I felt that Mr. Fielding only was supporting Dr. Aziz. The others – both English and Indian alike – seemed to be supporting their prejudices without examining anything Miss Quested or Dr. Aziz said or did while they were visiting the caves. The English believe Miss Quested is right because she is English; the Indians believe Dr. Aziz is right because he is Indian. Only Fielding cares enough to take a good look at the circumstances and the people involved.
The resolution of Dr. Aziz’s trial isn’t really surprising. In fact, there are some who go so far as to say the issue of what really happened at the Marabar Caves doesn’t matter at all, only the repercussions are of consequence. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say what did or didn’t happen in the caves was unimportant, however Dr. Aziz’s arrest certainly brought all the simmering prejudices of both the English and the Indians out in the open. And the incident at the caves was an incident just waiting to happen. Adela Quested tells another character that she had felt “unwell” since the day of the tea party, a tea party that took place long before the outing to Marabar.
What kept me reading was wondering how the respective English and Indians were going to act after the trial was over. Were they going to be able to keep their friendships intact? Or would even Fielding’s and Aziz’s deepening friendship be broken by the Anglo-Indian divide no matter what Fielding and Aziz themselves want?
I can’t say any book has brought India to life for me like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, but A Passage to India came close. And really, I don’t think I should compare the two books as they depict two very different times in the history of India and very different people. A Passage to India is, I think, the best book I’ve read about colonial India and the problems suffered by both English and Indian alike.
I have to admit, I don’t know a lot about the colonization of India, so keeping that in mind, the characters, for me, rang very true. I found them wonderfully drawn, their dialogue was believable, and I found I understood them even if I didn’t particularly like all of them. I think Forster must have had excellent insight into human character.
I think it should be pointed out that with the exception of Fielding, A Passage to India is a book without heroes and without villains, something that I think deepens its theme. The colonization of India had its good points and it had its bad, among the English and among the Indians, and Forster doesn’t shrink from exposing both. Still, Forster doesn’t pretend to understand India or the complex relationships that occurred during colonial days. India, he says, is a “muddle,” but it is through the problems of colonial India that Forster examines universal problems among human beings everywhere.
Though Forster is commenting on the colonization of India, and though the reader gains insight into how colonial India was governed by the British, A Passage to India is not a political book. The heart of the book doesn’t concern itself with the politics of Raj India, but rather how those politics impacted human relationships in that country during that time, a subject that’s timeless.
Forster’s stream-of-consciousness prose gives us access to the thoughts of all his characters. I loved this as the prose was never awkward, as stream-of-consciousness can be. It flowed beautifully, keeping the reader oriented at all times, though I wouldn’t expect less from a writer as masterful as Forster was.
This is a beautiful novel, but for me, it was also very sad. Even though Fielding stands by Dr. Aziz through his trial, Dr. Aziz still worries constantly that the Englishman will betray him. Such were relationships between the English and the Indians in Raj India. And when the two men meet years after the trial has concluded Fielding asks Aziz, “Why can't we be friends now? It's what I want. It's what you want.” Yet even though the two men desire friendship, friendship seems unattainable.
In Howard’s End, also written by Forster and also a wonderful classic, Forster’s overriding message was to “only connect.” The characters in A Passage to India, however, find “connecting” impossible, much as they may desire it.
Recommended: With no reservations. This is a beautiful, and beautifully sad, classic that everyone should read. The film adaptation by David Lean is wonderful as well.