Monday, June 1, 2009

71. A Passage to India – E.M. Forster

August 2007
History: Published in 1924, A Passage to India has four central themes: the difficulty of friendship between an Englishman and an Indian, the racism and oppression of the British who rule India, the "muddle" of Indian civilization and psychology, and the unity of all life.
Plot: A young British schoolmistress, Adela Quested, and her elderly friend, Mrs. Moore, visit the fictional city of Chandrapore, British India. On their arrival, Adela is to marry Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop, the city magistrate. Meanwhile, Dr. Aziz, a young Muslim Indian physician, is dining with two of his Indian friends and conversing about whether it is possible to be friends with an Englishman. During the meal, a summons arrives from Major Callendar, Aziz's unpleasant superior at the hospital. Aziz hastens to Callendar's bungalow as ordered, but is delayed by a flat tire and difficulty in finding a Tonga and the major has already left in a huff. Disconsolate, Aziz walks down the road toward the train station. When he sees his favorite mosque, a rather ramshackle but beautiful structure, he enters on impulse. When he sees a strange Englishwoman there, he angrily yells at her not to profane this sacred place. The woman, however, turns out to be Mrs. Moore. Her respect for native customs (she took off her shoes on entering) disarms Aziz, and the two chat and part friends.
At Fielding's tea party, everyone has a good time conversing about India, and Fielding and Aziz even become great friends. Aziz buoyantly promises to take Mrs. Moore and Adela to see the Marabar Caves, a distant cave complex that everyone talks about but no one seems to actually visit. Aziz's Marabar invitation was one of those casual promises that people often make and never intend to keep. Aziz mistakenly believes that the women are really offended that he has not followed through with his promise and arranges the outing at great expense to himself. Fielding and Godbole were supposed to accompany the little expedition, but they miss the train. The party takes the train, and then uses elephants to travel to the caves. Aziz has planned the trip to be more extravagant than needed.
Aziz and the women begin to explore the caves. In the first cave, however, Mrs. Moore is overcome with claustrophobia, for the cave is dark and Aziz's retinue has followed her in. The press of people nearly smothers her. Disturbed by the echo, Mrs. Moore declines to continue exploring. So Adela and Aziz, accompanied by a single guide, a local man, climb on up the hill to the next cluster of caves.
As Aziz helps Adela up the hill, she innocently asks him whether he has more than one wife. Disconcerted by the bluntness of the remark, he ducks into a cave to compose himself. When he comes out, he finds the guide sitting alone outside the caves. The guide says Adela has gone into one of the caves by herself. Aziz looks for her in vain. Deciding she is lost, he angrily punches the guide, who runs away. Aziz looks around again and discovers Adela's field-glasses lying broken on the ground. He puts them in his pocket.
Then Aziz looks down the hill and sees Adela speaking to another young Englishwoman, Miss Derek, who has arrived with Fielding in a car. Aziz runs down the hill and greets Fielding effusively, but Miss Derek and Adela have already driven off without a word of explanation. Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Aziz return to Chandrapore on the train.
Then the blow falls. At the train station, Dr. Aziz is arrested and charged with sexually assaulting Adela in a cave. She reports the alleged incident to the British authorities.
The run-up to Aziz's trial for attempted sexual assault releases the racial tensions between the British and the Indians. Adela has accused Aziz of only trying to touch her. She remembers the situation as him following her into the cave and trying to grab her. She fends him away by swinging her field glasses at him. She remembers him grabbing the glasses and the strap breaking which is what allows her to get away. The only actual evidence the British have is the field glasses in the possession of Dr. Aziz. This is no matter to the British colonists at Chandrapore, who are outraged by the alleged assault, but no one is really shocked. For at the back of all their minds is the conviction that all darker peoples lust after white women. Holding this attitude, they are understandably stunned when Fielding proclaims his belief in Aziz's innocence. Fielding is ostracized and condemned as a blood-traitor. But the Indians, who consider the assault allegation a fraud aimed at ruining their community's reputation, welcome him.
During the weeks before the trial, Mrs. Moore is unexpectedly apathetic and irritable. Her experience in the cave seems to have ruined her interest and faith in humanity. Although she curtly professes her belief in Aziz's innocence, she does nothing to help him. She insists on taking a ship back to England before the trial takes place. She dies during the voyage.
After an initial period of fever and weeping, Adela becomes confused as to Aziz's guilt. At the trial, she is asked point-blank whether Aziz sexually assaulted her.. She has a vision of the cave in that moment, and it turns out that Adela had, while in the cave, received a shock similar to Mrs. Moore's. The echo had disconcerted her so much that she temporarily became unhinged. She ran frantically around the cave, fled down the hill, and finally sped off with Miss Derek. At the time, Adela mistakenly interpreted her shock as an assault by Aziz, who personifies the India that has stripped her of her psychological innocence, but he was never there. With laudable honesty and bravery, she proclaims her mistake. The case is dismissed.
All the Anglo-Indians, who had eagerly rallied to her support, are shocked and infuriated by what they view as Adela's betrayal of the white race. Mrs. Turton shrieks insults at her, and Ronny Heaslop soon breaks off their engagement. Adela stays at the sympathetic Fielding's house until her passage on a boat to England is arranged. After explaining to Fielding that the echo was the cause of the whole business, she departs India, never to return.
Although he is free and vindicated, Aziz is angry and bitter that his friend, Fielding, would befriend Adela after she nearly ruined his life. The two men's friendship suffers in consequence, and Fielding soon departs for England. Aziz believes that he is leaving to marry Adela for her money, for which Fielding had dissuaded Aziz from suing her. Bitter at his friend's perceived betrayal, he vows never again to befriend a white person. Aziz moves to the Hindu-ruled state of Mau and begins a new life.
Two years later, Fielding returns to India and to Aziz. His wife is Stella, Mrs. Moore's daughter from a second marriage. Aziz, now the Raja's chief physician, at first persists in his anger against his old friend. But in time, he comes to respect and love Fielding again. However, he does not give up his dream of a free and united India. In the novel's last sentences, he explains that he and Fielding cannot be friends, at least not until India is free of the British Raj. Even the earth and the sky seem to say, "Not yet."
Review: Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India, begins and ends with a question - can the English and Indian races be friends and, at the end of the novel, the answer appears to be no, "No, not yet". The novel, in dramatizing the repercussions following Aziz's attempts to be decent to the English , his subsequent arrest, trial and final anti-English sentiments, is largely constructed around this question. Throughout the novel the barriers to inter-racial friendship in a colonial context are explored, and personally experienced by Fielding and Aziz. This is the first important point I would make - Forster's emphasis is firmly placed on the realms of the personal and the individual, rather than the social and political. And this, as we shall see, is an inherent characteristic of his own sustained liberal humanist world-view, with the premium it places on personal experience, individual experience, and the sanctity of the personal.
Opening Line: “Except for the Mirabar Caves – they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinaire.”
Closing Line: “Turning his back on it yet again, he took the train northward, and tender romantic fancies that he thought were dead forever, flowered when he saw the buttercups and daisies of June.”
Quotes: "A mystery is only a high sounding term for a muddle. No advantage in stirring it up, in either case. Aziz and I know well that India is a muddle."
"by what right did they claim so much importance in the world and assume the title of civilization?"
Rating: Okay, movie was so much better

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