Books Reviews

E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India: Double Vision

By Ramlal Agarwal

Forster, as is well-known, was a humanist, soft-spoken, cultivated, cultured man. He believed in personal relations and universal brotherhood. He was also a man of rare intelligence and insight and dreamed of a society that was tolerant and friendly. He visited India twice, first, in 1912-13 and then in 1921. Though the visits were brief, Forster acquired extensive knowledge of Indian society and its inner workings. He formed an intimate friendship with some Indians and moved about the country freely. He had his personal vision of life and another vision of social life in India. Armed with double vision, the symbolic and the realist, he wrote his last novel A Passage to India in which he deals with the struggle of the internal disturbances of India and his own struggle to unite his double vision into one.                  

Forster set A Passage to India in India in the 1920s when Indian society was seething with strife and distrust among its main constituents, the Hindus, the Muslims, and the British. The social and political atmosphere of the country was completely vitiated by its constituents who hated one another. The novel gets at the heart of it and strives to make peace, and succeeds, though moderately or one might say symbolically.

The novel opens with the arrival of Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Adela Quested at Chandrapore in connection with the latter’s marriage with Mr. Ronny, the son of Mrs. Moore and the District Magistrate at Chandrapore. The ladies are very enthusiastic and eager to see India and meet Indians. 

Though the British have an exclusive club for their meetings and entertainment, but Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Adela are not interested in club life. They get away from it to meet Indians.

Away from the club they see a mosque and enter it. Dr. Aziz, who was resting there, saw them and shouted “Please remove your shoes outside. This is a place of worship”. They had already done it and were not put out by Aziz’s command. They meet him and take a liking to him, notwithstanding his impetuosity. Back at the club, the ladies say that they would like to meet Indians. The Collector defers to their wishes and arranges a party for the British and the Indians. Mrs. Moore’s and Miss Adela’s desire to meet Indians draws sharp, biting comments from their compatriots. But they remain undisturbed. The party is not an easy get-together because of inhibitions of race and culture. It forms itself into two groups, the British, and the Indian, which, it seemed, had nothing to do with each other. Naturally, Mrs. Moore and Miss Adela move to the Indian camp where they are engaged in conversation with Fielding, the Principal of the local Govt. College, and who, like the two ladies, wants to be friends with Indians, and Mr. and Mrs. Bhattacharya because they could converse in English. Mrs. Bhattacharya invites the ladies to tea. Mrs. Bhattacharya promised to send a carriage to fetch them on the appointed date and time. The ladies eagerly look forward to meeting the Indian family, but the carriage doesn’t arrive. In the evening the ladies join Cyril Fielding and his friends at a party hosted by him. 

Naturally, they mention their disappointment about Bhattacharya’s meeting. Immediately, Dr. Aziz blurts out “Slack Hindus – they do not know society, I know them very well because of a doctor at the hospital. Such a slack, unpunctual fellow. It is as well you did not go to their house, for it would give you a wrong idea of India. Nothing sanitary.”  In a flush of emotion, he invites them to a party in their honor. Later, he thinks that a party at his house was unthinkable; and hence he throws it at the Malabar Caves. The ladies and Fielding accept his invitation. The journey to the caves and the caves themselves disappoint Mrs. Moore. The endless stretches of baked and bleached land, formless trees, and their wilted leaves, and the meaningless Baum-Baum echoing in the caves, unnerve and horrify her. Adela’s shriek in the caves and the story of sexual assault on her attack her with double vision | – the horrors of the universe and its smallness. 

Back at Chandrapore Adela alleges that Dr. Aziz assaulted her in the cave. The entire British camp gears itself against Dr. Aziz and arrests him on his return to Chandrapur. Fielding could not believe that Aziz was guilty and rushed to the superintendent to plead his case. He also meets the Collector and other influential persons to convince them that Dr. Aziz was innocent, but in vain. Mrs. Moore too tells Ronny and Adela that Aziz was innocent, but Ronny does not believe her and feels that she had better return to England, and so does Mrs. Moore. 

The P. and O. were full, but lady Mellanby, the wife of the Lt. Governor of the province, graciously accommodated her in her cabin. On her journey back home, she passed by the fort of Asirgarh which she had not seen and there was a reflux of her earlier feelings. The cool starlit night, full moon, and moonlit pinnacles lift her spirit. She feels she has not seen the right places in India. She has not seen Delhi, Agra nor Rajputana, or Kashmir; the ruins of Mandu and Hampi; the temples of Khajuraho, or the gardens of Shalimar. She questions herself” so you thought the echo was India? Did you take Malabar caves as final?” She recovers from her state of mind and affirms       “nothing had happened in the cave and if it had, there are worse evils than love. The thought cures her of double vision.

When Adela’s trial begins, the division in the British and Indian camps comes out in sharp relief. Fielding of all the British is with the Indian side. Adela goes through a horrifying experience but is determined to do the right thing and retracts her allegation against Aziz. Aziz is free without a stain. There is great jubilation on the Indian side and great gloom on the British side. 

However, Fielding was worried about the damages. He had heard Indians clamoring for twenty thousand rupees. He pleaded with Aziz to let her off. He said that she would sign any apology he wanted from her. Aziz said let her sign” Dear Dr. Aziz, I wish you had come into the cave. I am an awful hag, and it is my last chance.” Fielding recoiled at it but still went on urging him to let her off without damages. Aziz says that he would do so if Mrs. Moore asked him to.

But Mrs. Moore was no longer in India and Ronny got a cable that she had died during her journey. The mounting pressure from Fielding produces the desired effect and Aziz forgoes the amount. 

However, the question remains nagging who did it? Was it the guide? Was it one of the Pathans drifting through the district, or was it a hallucination? Fielding thinks it was hallucination and Adela acquiescences willy-nilly. Though the Indians cheered her, she had become a hateful figure in the British camp, and she was not welcome at the Civil line. So, there was the question of her lodging. Fielding suggests she could stay at the college for the time being as he would be away for two days. After much discussion, Adela agrees to the suggestion. Meanwhile, Ronny breaks the engagement and Adela returns home. 

Both, Mrs. Moore and Adela leave a trail of many legends, slander, and gossip. It was said that a crocodile with the tusks of a boar crawled out of the Ganges killed Mrs. Moore. Some said that Fielding visited Adela in the evenings while she was at college. Such gossip is the staple food of Indian imagination 

After Adela’s departure, Fielding and Aziz keep meeting each other. However, their friendship is not natural. Reservations and misunderstandings affected it. Aziz suspected the relationship between Fielding and Adela, and Fielding’s proposed visit to England further deepened it. Aziz thought the visit was for getting married to Adela and that Fielding had cheated him of twenty thousand rupees by design and was full of rancor against him. 

In the last part, the whole Indian cast moves to Mau, and Fielding was transferred from Chandrapur Govt. College. However, they come together on the occasion of the celebrations of Lord Krishna’s birth. 

The principal figure in the celebrations is Prof Godbole. The occasion lifts him to a state in which self and society become immaterial. He forgets himself and is lost in singing and dancing in extreme devotion to Lord Krishna. While returning home, he hears Dr. Aziz calling him, but without stopping, answers that he is at the state Guest House. Dr. Aziz could make out that Prof. Godbole was referring to Fielding, who was at Mau on an inspection tour of the local school and had married Stella, the daughter of Mrs. Moore. Dr. Aziz was at Mau because he had resigned from his post at Chandrapur and joined the service of the Raja of Mau. Fielding calls him to treat his brother-in-law, Ralph, who was suffering from an attack of bees. The two friends meet and the fact disillusions Aziz that Fielding had not married Adela but Stella. 

Before leaving Mau, Fielding arranges one last ride with Aziz in the jungles of Mau. Both are happy riding together and open up. Aziz produces a letter he wants to send to Adela in which he thanks her for her fine behavior two years back and says that he would teach his children to speak of her with the greatest respect. He takes out the letter and adds “For my own part I shall henceforth connect you with the name that is very sacred in my mind – Mrs. Moore.” Aziz also confesses that he had been disgracefully hasty thinking that he meant to get hold of his money: as bad a mistake as the caves. 

They are friends again, but socially they have no meeting place. When the conversation veers around social issues, they differ from each other, and the atmosphere gets vitiated and rancorous. Fielding wants to get details of Krishna’s birth. Aziz says, “it is useless discussing Hindus with me and counters why was he so curious about Krishna. Fielding says that his wife Stella and her brother Ronny liked Hinduism. The conversation then shifted to politics. Lately, Fielding had thrown his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a countrywoman and was gaining some of its limitations. Like Mrs. Moore, he suffers from double vision and unexpectedly says “The British Empire could not be abolished because it was rude. Aziz retorts” very well, and we have no use for you.” “Fielding says,” away from us, Indians go to seed at once and cited examples of Godbole’s King Emperor school and how away from us Indians forget their medicine and resort to charms, and how their poets merely talk of freedom to their women without meaning to do so.” This rattles Aziz and he loses his cool and blurts out” Clear out you fellows, double quick— I say. We shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then you and I shall be friends. Fielding asked, “why can’t we be friends now? It is what I want. It is what you want. But the horses did not want it, and other symbols of Indian civilization did not want it. All of them said in a hundred voices “No, not yet and the sky said,” No, not there.” 

Notwithstanding the pessimistic ending of A Passage to India, the novel is a celebration of personnel relations. Mrs. Moore and Adela carve a niche in the heart of Dr. Aziz and Fielding does not give in to all sorts of sneering and distrust and keeps riding with Aziz.   

Categories: Books Reviews, Literary criticism

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