A passage to India is a collected archive of the many Indias that birthed today’s republic. The culmination of sorts of the many that laid the foundations. E.M Forster’s book isn’t a bird’s eye view of a foreigner looking at India, even though that’s the impression I went in with. It’s like a house pet omnipresent in British, Muslim, and Hindu houses, narrating stories from its experiences in a country gripped in the shadows of an imperialistic Britain.
Forster weaves through the minds of natives of the land and the ruling class and navigates the reader through it. We have a section of frustrated Britishers who think they are doing good work and look down upon Indians. At the same time, we also have a few Britishers who want to understand the land. We also have the natives who either artificially aligned with the British for favors or jobs and those that outrightly despised them.
Interestingly, the author chooses not to build a background on what was happening politically in India and worldwide. So, with the absence of any context on India’s horrid affair with the British, one might’ve got a totally different take on the story. The story- focusses on the relationship between an Indian doctor (Aziz) and a high school principal (Fielding)- forms the book’s focal point. Two individuals try their best to mingle with another culture while holding their existing notions intact. There’s a separation of the race with the individual, and then misunderstandings that bring back the peculiar trust deficit changes it all.
The trust deficit among the cultures plays out throughout the book and isn’t limited to the central characters. One can even see it playing out among the natives between religious or caste groups. What Forster does well here is an honest portrayal of the feelings even when there’s a whole lot of hypocrisy visible for the rational eye. Characters don’t always abide by what they think, nor are there clear explanations for their actions. Drawing parallels from real life? Indeed.
On the British side, there are characters like Mrs. Moore, a widow who has come down to India to arrange the marriage of his son, who wants to understand the country and wishes to see the ‘real India.’ She is accompanied by Adela, who is supposed to get married to Moore’s son but isn’t so sure of ‘how much India has changed him.’ On the other hand, her son is a Magistrate who wants nothing to do with Indians except keep them ‘in line.’ There’s a club where Indians aren’t allowed, and those who frequent these clubs (Britishers) have terrible notions about Indians. And of course, there’s Mr. Fielding, who apparently ‘travels light’ as he’s still a bachelor, an atheist, and spends a lot of time with Indians like Aziz, much to the fellow club-going Britishers around.
On the Indians side, Aziz (a doctor) and his servants and friends take up a lot of his time. Whatever time he is left, he invests in poetry and usually tries to be a good host to the Britishers. There are characters like Dr. Panna Lal, Prof Godbole, and others who represent the other Indians in the fictitious town of Chandrapore in Central India.
Without giving any spoilers, an incident happens between Aziz and a Britisher that throws the fault lines among the two groups in the open as a trial ensues. While the story moves along this line, there’s definitely more to it than just this significant conflict.
Forster has attempted to paint an early 1900’s India without any emphasis on the politics of that time. He’s instead chosen the path of talking about Aziz and Fielding’s relationship and, through it, highlighting where the groups stood. Forster’s characters imitate life and go through their struggle to try to be humans instead of being saints.
However, towards the end of the book, there is a tone shift that throws you off. Instead of the flowy, fly-on-the-wall storytelling, the book hurries you up towards a climax. One can attribute it to the year gaps in the story, but perhaps they were written in two different periods themselves. Of course, this shift isn’t for long, and towards the end, you come back to the original tone of Forster’s Passage.
This is a good book for those with an existing understanding of India’s independence and relationship dynamics with the Britishers. Otherwise, this might come across as just a fictitious memoir of two friends to the uninitiated.
While reading, I could see the problematic caste and religious divide still prevalent in our country mirrors how it was way before the idea of ‘India’ was even there. At the same time, I could see individuals trying to adjust their own lifestyles to accommodate others by acknowledging these differences. This is something we’re slowly losing.