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A Passage to India: Book Review

Updated on July 10, 2015

A passage to India by Forsters E.M focuses on the interaction between the English and the native Indian population during the period when Britain colonized India. The novel’s context is at Chandrapore, an urban center along river Ganges that is quite popular for its Marabar caves. Dr. Aziz is the key character in this novel who is a widower and a Muslim. Alongside Dr. Aziz are four other characters, Mrs., Mooer, Cyril Fieldig, and Miss Adela. These characters decide to set a trip to Marabar caves where Adela finds herself with Dr. Aziz in one of the Marabar caves. It is argued that Dr. Aziz had practically attempted to assault her and with great panic, she fled. Consequently, the trial of Aziz and its aftermath brings out the prejudices and racial tensions that had existed between the indigenous local Indians and the Britons who ruled India at that time. In essence, this book vividly offers a critique on the style of British colonialism in India, which led to lack of support among the indigenous people.

The book is created against the milieu of the Indian independence euphoria of the 1920s and the British Raj. The book is among the top 100 works in the English literature of the 20th century by the Modern Library. In addition, it has won many prices for fiction books. The book centers on the experience of Forster while working in India.

From his experiences in India during the British colonization, Forster labels them as caricatures. He went on to argue that he could not give any balanced view of his experiences. Forster went on to suggest that the friendship or effective integration between the British and the India was near impossible as even the cultures of the two nations were totally incompatible in securing appreciation and mutual respect. This implies that Forster was highly critical of British colonialism in India.

Discussion

The Perception of Forster on British Colonialism

In this work, Forster presents a strong critique of British colonialism in India. His chief argument is that colonialism tended to prevent personal relationships. In this endeavor, he posses the central question in the very beginning of the novel when Hamidullah and Mahmud Ali ponders on whether it was possible to befriend Englishmen. The response presented by Foster himself at the final pages is

“No, no yet … No, not there” (p. 322).Friendship like that is not possible, on a political level, due to the existence of British Raj”. The most obvious target for Foster is the unfriendly chauvinism of the Englishmen, (Anglo-Indians) in India. He sometimes tries to score them for the pure spite they portrayed, as when Mrs. Calendar plainly states, “The kindest thing to be done to a native is letting them die in their situations” (27).

Anglo-Indians, as Foster named them, usually acted on emotional prejudice rather than open-minded and rational examination of facts. Therefore, they fall into coherent inconsistencies which Foster exposes using his best weapon: irony. This is best portrayed in the arrest of Dr. Aziz at the frantic Club meeting for supposedly molesting Adela Quested. An anonymous native who he had played polo with the previous month was defended. He states that any native playing Polo is regarded as being one of them and therefore he is strongly defended.

Further, Foster effectively presents different relationships and scenarios with use of imagery and symbolism. This is meant for the audience to determine or imagine the path it may lead and how it criticizes colonialism. The narrative tends to play host to a range of consequences and themes present for all the parties. In addition, Foster captures the colonialist ideology against the scenery of an astounding India and its population in a way that gives the reader an unbiased focal on themes while at the same time, creating a permanent curiosity to how the back-story affects the current interaction.

Cultural Differences between Indians and the Britain

In this novel, the author vividly indicates some elements in the culture of India and Britain, which were never compatible with one another. Among these elements, include cleanness, punctuality, reservation and moral perspectives. Being a colony of Britain, India was embodied with three distinct cultures, Islam, Hinduism, and English. According to Forster, these cultures were so distinct to the extent that they could not be compatible with one another. He employs his characters to portray these cultural differences among the British and Indians.

Ethics and Moral Perspectives

In the second chapter, Dr. Aziz attends dinner at Hamidullah’s home and while taking dinner, they engage in a discussion regarding the cultural differences between Anglo- Indians. Mrs. Turton, a British official who works as an inspector for the canal scheme accepts bribes from Raja to connect water through the estates. In actual sense, any form of bribery was considered as a social crime in Indian culture and was regarded as a source of social problems. Though the Britons seemingly embraced this, it was unlawful in Islamic perspective. In the discussion with Hamidullah, Dr. Aziz wonders how the act of bribery was so acceptable by the Christians.

Forsters strongly criticizes the way the British colonialists handled and approached this social evil. Interestingly, if the indigenous or black people were found to have engaged in bribery, they were harshly charged. On the other hand, if the Britons engaged in bribery, they were left scot-free with no charge labeled against them.

Cleanness

The culture of India is best identified through the people’s believes, customs and values. Most of Indians would like to spend their leisure time taking pan and hookah. They could even sacrifice cleanness to engage in these sources of gossip (Chanda, 2003, 78). In the Passage to India, we are also informed that unlike the British, Indians do not take cleanness so seriously. In the second chapter, Dr. Aziz says,

“If I have to clean my teeth, I may not go at all (to take hookah or pan). I am an Indian and in this culture, we have to take pan” (Forster 1924: 38).

This implies that they had to sacrifice cleanness in order to take some leisure activities. Further, the aspect of little emphasis in cleanness could be connected with another element in the Indian culture that of punctuality and which is discussed in the subsequent part.

Punctuality

Hamidullah and Dr. Aziz were about to start taking their dinner when they are interrupted by some peculiar letter from Callendar Major. In actual sense, it was the character of Aziz to be punctual. In the beginning, Dr. Aziz is advised to visit the surgeon, but he is hesitating to do so. In these lines, two things come out clear, that if Dr. Aziz undertakes the cleaning of his teeth, he might be late. This implies that Dr. Aziz was notable for punctuality in his responsibilities and duties. The second thing is that he was proud of being an Indian and the Indian culture. Further, Hamidullah notes the character of punctuality in Dr. Aziz in their regular discussions. In the subsequent lines, Forster highlights some differences between the Indian and British culture.

“In one of the nights in the club, there was an amateur orchestra contributed by the English community. In other places, there were some drumming by the Hindus; I knew that they were Hindus since the rhythm was uncongenial and that it was accompanied by wailing (Forster 1924: 41).

Reservation

In this novel, many lines present some reservations on the acceptance of the British culture by the Indians. When major Callendar summons Dr. Aziz, he did not find any important message to give him and he decides to go to the Mosque. Most of the English classes were working on a play ‘Cousin Kate’ in the club. Dr. Aziz manages to hear some form of artistic music from the other side of the club. She notes that these presentations had some elements from the Western culture. Music was acceptable and fair in the perspective of Christianity and some of them regard music as the diet of the soul. However, Dr Aziz did not like how the music was played because the drumming, rhythm and sounds and were not acceptable among the indigenous culture. In short, there were some reservations in some of the practices and cultural activities of the British people.

From this novel, we also learn on a religious dispute between Muslims and Hindus in India. While the mosque was considered a place of worship, some people especially Indians were busy bewailing in the mosque. Bewailing in a place of worship was a symbol of the Hindu culture, which greatly deviated from the Moslem practices. In short, the wide cultural differences between the indigenous and foreign cultures made the locals to have reservations on embracing these cultures.

Conclusion

With the thought of colonialism, Foster has in a “passage to India” directed his focus on people, development of characters and relationships rather than taking the novel on a digression of absolute political movement. With this liberal approach, the reader is able to delve into the matter with a more open mind and develop own comments and opinions on colonialism rather than rely on Foster’s critique.

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