Books Reviews

A Passage to India: Naivety and Reality

By: Ramlal Agarwal

In the 1940s and the 1950s there was one novel the students and scholars of English literature in India were taken up with and that was E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India. It was essentially prescribed in all courses in English literature, it was discussed in all highbrow magazines and there could be no seminar without it. It was one book no teacher or student of English literature could afford to neglect. But with the passage of time, like all classics, it receded from the centre-stage to the back-stage.

Readers were drawn to the novel because it was about India, a subject close to the heart of the British and the Indians. It connected prose with poetry, it tried to bring people of different backgrounds, education, temperament and faiths together, it was free from racial prejudices and was critical of the style of ruling India and the petulance and peevishness of the ruling class including its women folk.

Forster visited India twice. First, he came to India 1912-13 and second in 1921. During his first visit in 1912-13 he formed impressions of India and the Indian and started writing A Passage to India, but could not move ahead. He took it up again on his second visit but in vain. It was when he got back to England and allowed his impressions to take shape that he could come out with it in 1924. The novel is based upon his two indelible impressions. First, that “the Indian or anyhow the Hindu character is unaesthetic. One is starved by the absence of beauty.”  Second that the Raj suffered because of “the insolence of the English man and English woman.” (The Hill of Devi, Penguin 1965)     

The novel explores whether people of two different cultures, two different temperaments and two different mindsets can come together and be friends. It is overrun by playfulness, insouciance, tolerance and non-judgemental attitude. It unfolds with the arrival of two women- a very senior and mature English lady called Mrs. Moore and a young English lady of marriageable age called Miss Adela and a middle-aged and liberal-minded English gentleman called Mr. Fielding in India around the 1920s. Mrs. Moore came to India to attend the talks of the possible marriage of her son Ronnie to Miss Adela. Miss Adela was in India to get to know Ronnie, her prospective husband. Mr. Fielding came to India to take up a teaching assignment. They are untouched by the prevalent prejudices between the Indian and the English. They believe in personal relations and civil niceties. In Chandrapur, they meet a young Indian called Aziz, a medical doctor and want to get on with him and through him his friends and other members of Indian society. But other English men and women do not want them to mix with the Indians. The English and the Indians had come to believe that it was impossible to be friends with one another. Therefore, the English kept themselves to their camps and the Indians to theirs. Mrs. Moore does not believe in any kind of segregation. She believes in unity and wholeness. Therefore, she does not stop meeting the Indians. Encouraged by her attitude, Dr. Aziz arranges a party at the famous Malabar caves. Mrs. Moore, Adela and Fielding accept to join the party. Dr Aziz manages an elephant ride and spares no expenses to turn the event into a royal celebration. He is rather over-excited and wants to see that nothing goes amiss.

Notwithstanding Aziz’s frantic efforts to make the picnic a success, it turns into a nightmare. Mrs. Moore is disappointed that the famous Malabar caves turn out to be mere crevices and their famous echo was a mere meaningless baum -baum to every call. Fielding misses his train and arrives late for the picnic and most dreadfully Miss Adela is missing.

In his early draft, Forster wrote that screams echoed from a cave Aziz and Adela were visiting and Adela came out of the cave badly bruised. Her clothes were torn and she was totally distraught. She got into the car of Miss Derek who had just arrived and left the picnic. Forster realized that the incident might prove the dead-end for his liberal rationality so he changed the draft and withdrew Aziz and left Adela to fend for herself.

But the damage was done. Mrs. Moore had heard the echo and was submerged in the horror of double vision- the vision of unity and eternity and the vision of division and fragmentation. Adela accuses Aziz of assaulting her in the cave and the schisms between the English and the Indians become wider and deeper. The dream project of Forster fails.

In fact, it was for-doomed because he had bungled the choice of his characters.  Aziz was a chance acquaintance for Mrs. Moore, Miss Adela and Fielding and they accept him as they find him. One wonders how could Forster choose him to be a protagonist of his dream project when he himself describes him as a high-strung bigoted individual. He considered himself the descendent of Mughal emperors. His favourite Mughal emperor was Babar and his ideal Mughal emperor was Alamgir. He hated his colleague Pannalal, another medical doctor. He would have only Muslim peers in his party. He arranges the elephant ride etc. to show-off the Moghul splendour. His comments on Adela after his acquittal at her behest show his breeding. If Dr Aziz draws sharp lines, Professor Godbole blurs all. He refuses to discriminate. Forster draws a sharp contrast between the ‘here and now’ attitude of Dr. Aziz and the totally unconcerned and otherworldly attitude of Prof.  Godbole.   

One also wonders at Forster’s choice of Mrs. Moore, Adela and Fielding. Either Forster did not develop them to their full capacity or they are just one-dimensional characters. Ms. Moore is presented just as an ideal but not an ideal human being. She leaves for England and dies on the way while the trial of Adela’s charge is going on. She does not check with Adela the facts of her plight. The meaningless baum-baum sank her. The lifeless landscape of Indian trees and the behaviour of the Indian as well as the British characters get on her nerves and she wants to get away from here as soon as she can. Lionel Trilling and Benita Parry and other critics accord her the role of reconciling the differences between races, religions, social creeds, nature and man but D.S.Savage doesn’t think so. (Forster, edt. Malcolm Bradbury, Published by Prentice-Hall, Inc.) 

Malcolm says that D.S.Savage is of the view that liberalism of Forster’s kind is necessarily and inherently a barrier to the production of the major literature. Walter Allen in “The English Novel” considers Mrs. Moore to be a wholly successful symbol, a symbol of acceptance, of unconscious life going on heedless of the disputes of the passing moment. Infect, she is an incongruous character. She does not participate in the events of the novel and is merely a vague influence because of her age. Miss Adela, the other English woman, is in the centre of the storm but she is an insipid character. She has no charm, no vivacity and no feminine qualities whatsoever. D.S.Savage considered fielding the hero of the novel as he represented all that Forster held close to his heart i.e. personnel relations, good manners, goodwill and to connect but apart from casual appearances throughout the novel he remains in the background. He is away from the hullabaloo of the cave incident, he is away from the heat of the court scene and he is away from the Anglo-Indian community and only emerges at the end of the novel to ask Dr.Aziz whether they could be friends. The novel makes it clear that Forster’s motto does not hold water if confronted with extreme social, cultural, psychological and religious differences.

The critics in Malcolm’s book “Forster (Prentice-Hall inc )” book stress Hinduism and its spirituality which, they claim, obliterates all distinctions. Mrs.Moore   has imbibed it and calls a wasp “Pretty dear”.  However, they overlook the reality of Hindu society which is founded on sharp distinctions and discrimination. 

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Ramlal Agarwal did his M.A. from Mumbai University in 1965 and Ph.D. from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in 1977. Taught English and also served as Principal (1995 to 2000), Chairman, Board  of Studies in English, Dean of the faculty of 

Arts, Dr. B.A.M.U., Aurangabad. Reviewed Indian Writing in English for World Literature Today, U.S.A. and contributed articles and reviews to The Times of IndiaIndian ExpressQuest, Youth Times and other national papers and magazines. His work on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was published by Sterling Publishers, Delhi (1990). He currently lives in Jalna ( Maharashtra ) and runs an NGO.

Categories: Books Reviews, Essay

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