Monday, August 17, 2009

A Passage to India | E.M. Forster

“A Passage to India” by E.M. Forster chronicles the English occupation of India in the mid-1800’s. The book shows the racism and hatred amongst parties, and details the friendship of a Muslim Indian (Dr. Aziz) with an Englishman, Cyril Fielding, in the city of Chandrapore.

Dr. Aziz immediately takes to Fielding upon meeting him, and eventually demonstrates the importance of their friendship by showing him a picture of his deceased wife, taboo in Muslim tradition. Their relationship has its ebbs and flows over time due to trust issues stemming from poor treatment of Dr. Aziz by other English men and women after ‘the incident’.

In an attempt to make friends with some English ladies, Dr. Aziz takes them on a trip to the Marabar Caves. When Adela Quested is assaulted in a cave, she blames Dr. Aziz; No other people are present save a guide, and she assumes that Aziz is directly responsible. When Dr. Aziz returns to Chandrapore, he is arrested.

Fielding, implicitly trusting Dr. Aziz’, states that he is innocent and is immediately ostracized himself by the English in Chandrapore. When the trial begins, Adela breaks down and proclaims that Dr. Aziz is indeed, innocent – she had somehow mixed things up. Despite the trial’s resolution, the country continues to be divided amongst racial lines.

Dr. Aziz eventually forgives Adela, and proves it by waiving the charge of damages resulting from the trial. When Fielding decides to go back to England for a time, Dr. Aziz assumes it is to marry Adela. This breaks their friendship, as Aziz takes the act as an indirect theft of his waived damages. Their relationship is eventually saved by the spirit of Mrs. Moore (an English woman), whom Dr. Aziz loved in a purely platonic way.

That’s about it, in a nutshell. This book is praised in most circles and is known as one of the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Books of All-Time. Somehow, I had a problem connecting both with the story and with the characters.

The consensus on the Forster’s prose seemed to be one of fluidity and skill, but I never got that impression. The language was fairly lost on me, and I didn’t find many transcendent quotes which had me running for a pen.

In addition, the event at the caves occurred about halfway through the novel, and ended with approx 80 pages remaining. In my mind, those eighty pages had little substance in them, despite the friendship renewal with Fielding and the plight of Mrs. Moore.

The character descriptions were loose, and amongst some of the fringe characters, you never really had a sense of who they were or what their purpose was. Despite the subject, this novel never captivated me, though it had the potential.

Forster did a decent job of portraying India through the eyes of the English, which was paralleled by his brief painting of the landscape and lifestyle of the people. To me, this is the greatest thing that can be taken from the novel, whether this was intended by the author or not. The novel is a discreet commentary on just how little the English learned about India. The rest of the novel fell short of drama, passion and ingenuity, and seemed to just float along with the reader. I was surprised by the praise of this work, and disappointed with the effort as a whole.


"One can tip too much as well as too little; indeed the coin that buys the exact truth has not yet been minted." 10

"He had discovered that it is possible to keep in with Indians and Englishmen, but that he who would also keep in with Englishwomen must drop the Indians.  The two wouldn't combine.  Useless to blame either party, useless to blame them for blaming one another.  It just was so, and one had to choose."  52

"...he had dulled his craving for verbal truth and cared chiefly for truth of mood."  60-61

"Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession." 127

"The triumphant machine of civilization may suddenly hitch and be immobilized into a car of stone, and at such moments the destiny of the English seems to resemble their predecessors', who also entered the country with intent to refashion it, but were in the end worked into its pattern and covered with its dust."  190

"...we all build upon sand; and the more modern the country gets, the worse'll be the crash." 250

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