A Passage to India Novel Analysis

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Forster through his novel “A Passage to India” stresses on the Oriental notions further. Written with an aim to eradicate the darkness attributed to India by the Englishmen, the novel in turn exoticises India to a large extent. He evaluates the ‘Other’ in a myriad of ways and quite unknowingly reiterates the Oriental ideology of the ‘Other’ (here India) being primitive, irrational, violent and being inferior to the colonizer.

The idea of the mystery associated with India first gets discussed during the tea party at Fielding’s house:

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“I do so hate mysteries,” Adele announced.

“We English do.”

“I dislike them not because I’m English, but from my own personal point of view,” she corrected.

“I like mysteries but I rather dislike muddles,” said Mrs. Moore

“A mystery is a muddle”

“Oh, do you think so Mr. Fielding?”

“A mystery is only a high-sounding term for a muddle.”

Here, Mr. Fielding, the spokesperson for Forster in the novel conveys his hatred for anything that is mysterious. This in turn reveals his superficial love for India and the Indians. Unlike other British officials, Mr. Fielding tries hard to love India despite its queerness. Yet, another instance where the veil of superficiality associated with his love for India gets ripped off is his visit to Venice.

“The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong. He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be beauty?” (Forster Pg)

Here, Mr. Fielding who claimed to love India as it admires the buildings of Venice and at the same time shows his disgust at the haphazard placing of buildings in India. The air of superiority surrounding the British officials who walked through the lanes of India, seem to be sumptuously breathed in by Mr. Fielding too.

Forster’s “A Passage to India” known for its anti-imperialist strain contains instances, which prove otherwise. The oriental idea of India being a muddle, mystery and full of chaos finds its manifestation in Forster’s description of the Indian landscape and its people. The descriptions about how Dr. Azis lets his bicycle fall to ground, goes to a dinner past the time and how his bicycle gets a puncture depicts the chaotic and unruly life of an Indian through the eye of a baffled colonizer who finds all this mess incomprehensible.

Forster says,

“He raised his voice suddenly, and shouted for dinner. Servants shouted back that it was ready. They meant that they wished it was ready, and were so understood, for nobody moved”.

The description of the above-mentioned situation comes from a speaker who tries to contrast the ‘unruly and orderless’ nature of Indians from the ‘neat and ordered’ nature of the Britishers. The degree of ironic strain in the above-mentioned statement is high and hence never fails to create an impression of a’ non-chaotic and decipherable’ life as the opposite side of Indianess. These descriptions by Forster are a proof of the deep rooted oriental ideology that has been instilled in the minds of the colonizers through various records which documented life in India.

In the first chapter of the novel, Forster describes the civil station as “sensibly planned, with a red-brick club on its brow”. He says “it has nothing hideous in it, and only the view is beautiful; it shares nothing with the city except the overarching sky”. The use of the expression ‘nothing hideous’ gives an impression that the ‘civil station’ is the only place in the district of Chandrapore that is free of ‘mystery and muddle’.

To Forster, the “Marabar Caves” is the epitomes of the Indian “muddleness”. The air of mystery that surrounds the cave from the moment its name is uttered gives a chill down the spines of the readers. The description of the Marabar Caves creates a sense of terror in the minds of the newly arrived Britishers and readers alike. Forster fails bitterly to create a sense of awe in them. His evasive description of Adele’s experience in the novel creates further confusion. Galsworthy Lowes Dickinson wrote to Forster in 1924 explaining the need for him to be more explicit about the cave incident. To this Forster wrote, “It’s a particular trick I felt justified in trying because my theme was India. It sprang from my subject matter. I wouldn’t have attempted it in other countries, which though they contain mysteries or muddles, manage to draw rings round them”. This statement, from the part of a writer who wrote against the prevalent ‘oriental strain ‘employed by writers of the time, is indeed paradoxical. Thus, this proves the plight of a writer who finds it impossible to unlearn certain ideologies imbibed in his early years despite his determination to change the course of colonial discourse.

Peter Burra, in his work “The Novels of E M Forster” regards “A Passage to India” as ‘a book which no student of the Indian question can disregard”. This dominant notion about Forster’s “A Passage to India” being a novel which treated the subject of “Anglo-India” with a sympathetic eye is indeed problematic.

Mr. Cyril Fielding appears to be the only man in the novel who treats Indians with the respect that they ought to get. Mr. Fielding acts as a spokesperson for Forster throughout the novel. As a result, he also becomes the bearer of Forster’s oriental ideologies. There are many instances in the novel where one gets to see his sugar-coated love for India getting bitter.

During the ride Fielding and Azis took before they parted, they talk about the British rule of India. Mr. Fielding says:

“Away from us, Indians go to seed at once. Look at the King-Emperor High School! Look at your poems… Free our women and India will be free. Try it, my lad.

Here, Mr. Fielding sheds all forms of politeness that has been carried off by him for too long and shows his true colours. The above statement divulges his ‘quasi-love’ for India and Indians. Like any other colonizer, Mr. Fielding too firmly believes that India will perish without the aid of England. He becomes a patronizing father who informs Aziz of his and his countrymen’s’ inferiority and incapability for proper administration. His statement about the present condition of King-Emperor High School and the possible return of Azis to charms makes him no less of a cruel colonizer.

Fielding claims India to be a country belonging to nobody. Like any other British official, he believes that a country like India with myriad of religions will disintegrate and crumble without the administration of a powerful and capable force like Britain. This shows the deep rooted oriental ideology in his mind as well in the mind of Forster. Such kind of statements force the Indians to accept subjugation and also fuels the act of orientalising .Forster himself admits this when he says “the sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me”.

On one side Forster shows the hollowness associated with the British idea of knowing India through the statements made by Rony Healesop. Rony claims about him knowing naturally about the distance to Marabar Caves, even if he had not been to it. On scrutinizing this statement, the underlying orientalist idea of attributing stereotypical features to a particular land and its people becomes evident. Forster also expresses his concern over the over-dependence of British officials on the records of Indian life, kept by the preceding officials in ruling India. He mentions this through the conversation between McBrydes and Mr.Fielding. McBrydes says “Read any of the Mutiny records; which, rather than the Bhagavad Gita, should be your Bible in this country”. Despite all this, Forster’s aim of analyzing the “Anglo-Indian” problem through the lens of an unprejudiced observer of India, fails in certain ways. Even though he tries to rebuke the dominant Oriental ideologies like the dichotomy of the colonizer and colonized, that have been in circulation, he fails to see his own assimilation of these ideologies and his exploitation of these in the novel “A Passage to India”. Forster through the novel presents certain newcomers who want to see the ‘real India’. The course of narrative in which the newcomers visit a cave called Marabar in hope of seeing and understanding ‘real India’ is indeed problematic. 

Forster’s use of the caves of Marabar to extend his idea of mystery and muddledom to whole of India needs to be problematized. He depicts a certain set of characters eager to know and understand the real India but becomes baffled and disillusioned once a minute portion of the so called India is introduced to them. Hence, knowingly or unknowingly, Forster creates an impression of mystery, chaos and muddledom as having close association with India when his real aim was to remove the haziness associated with the life of Indians in the life of Britishers and hence bridge the gap between them.

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