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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Great Book #38: A Passage to India

passage to india

Noise, noise, the Europeanized band louder, incense on the altar, sweat, the blaze of lights, wind in the bananas, noise, thunder, eleven-fifty by his wrist-watch, seen as he threw up his hands and detached the tiny reverberation that was his soul. Louder shouts in the crowd. He danced on.

India has a way of changing you. Every place you go is, as they say, ‘an assault on the senses,’ and every new experience has within it the potential for either sublimity or profound unpleasantness. It overwhelms you, you can’t get a handle on it; and while you’re questioning your surroundings you also begin to question yourself, and your reasons for coming here in the first place. You don’t need to spend a month in an ashram to come to this point. You need only board a rickety old public bus on which every passenger is staring at you like they just saw you tumble out of a rocketship.

[She] had learnt that Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually.

In my case, questioning myself and my motives led to a marvelous eye-opening experience of India. But I also live in a society that values cultural exchange, a society that, in theory anyway, that has long since washed its hands of colonialism and its attendant evils. I felt a little sheepish choosing A Passage to India for my trip reading (E.M. Forster being on the list and all), and then I figured that it’s probably not a cliché unless you’re as nerdy as I am. This novel made me squirm on every page, as it was written to; Forster obviously spent a lot of time among the ruling classes during his time in India, and in writing this book was reacting with a degree of sensitivity and insight that was forty years ahead of its time. (He visited India for the first time in 1912, and finished the novel in 1924.)

At the beginning of the story plain, sensible young Adele Quested and her potential mother-in-law Mrs. Moore arrive in Chandrapore to meet the latter’s son, Ronny Heaslop, the city magistrate. Eager for a glimpse of the “real” India, both English ladies chafe against the snobbery and hypocrisy so rampant at “the club,” where officials’ wives hide themselves to avoid dealing with the natives. After a chance meeting in the local mosque one night, Mrs. Moore makes friends with the bright, arrogant, capricious young Dr. Aziz, who in turn cultivates the friendship of English school principal (and social misfit) Cyril Fielding. These tender new connections lead to an excursion to the Marabar Caves; there an unfortunate misunderstanding culminates in Aziz’s arrest and a farce of a trial, in which his fate has already been decided through his skin color. To put it succinctly in the thoughts of Hamidullah, a leading member of Muslim society in Chandrapore: “Here all was wire-pulling and fear.”

On every page Forster’s prose snatched my breath from me. Each description is shot through with ruthless insight, whether he’s describing a city or landscape (Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life), a national character (He was even tender to the English; he knew at the bottom of his heart that they could not help being so cold and odd and circulating like an ice stream through his land), or human nature by way of one pill in particular:

India had developed sides of [Ronny’s] character that [Adela] had never admired. His self-complacency, his censoriousness, his lack of subtlety, all grew vivid beneath a tropic sky; he seemed more indifferent than of old to what was passing in the minds of his fellows, more certain that he was right about them or that if he was wrong it didn’t matter.

This is the universal attitude of British officialdom in Chandrapore, and Forster shows a very different ‘lack of subtlety’ in revealing one by one the appalling racism and ignorance of virtually every soul in the club. Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die–one of the “ladies” actually says that. To find such disgusting sentiments expressed without censure, and everyone constantly manipulating each other under the guise of polite society and colonial order, all the snubs and missteps between people who only pretend they can stand each other–like I said, this is an exhausting book. Forster will show you a lovely moment of kinship, and in the next paragraph snuff it out in a twist of pettiness. A soldier with whom Dr. Aziz has passed a silent but very satisfying evening of polo on an empty playing ground later mentions the episode when the doctor is in prison–to the effect that the sportsman is the rare decent native, the prisoner a common monster–unaware, of course, that they’re one and the same man; or when Aziz offers his own collar stud to Fielding, pretending it’s a spare, and later Heaslop notices with snooty satisfaction that Aziz’s collar is turning up.

The novel ends on an odd note, with Aziz and Fielding coming to the conclusion that they greatly value each other’s friendship and yet they can’t remain friends. Allegory over character, but it’s only a quibble. So, yeah…not exactly what most people would consider holiday reading, but then again, like most trips I take, this wasn’t really a vacation as such. More trip photos coming soon.

1 Comment to Great Book #38: A Passage to India

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    June 2, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The British really were a horrible lot in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
    I don’t think I’ll read it, but thanks for making me aware of this book 🙂

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.