This year marks the 100th anniversary of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. When he published the novel in 1924, it was famously thought the sun would never set on the British Empire.

Yet the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had happened just five years earlier. Such bloodshed undermined Britain’s so-called civilising mission in India. Appalled by the massacre, nationalist leaders increasingly believed that the only way forward was complete British withdrawal.

Forster’s novel was informed by travel in British India and the princely states. In 1912–1913, he took a tour of such places as Aligarh, Delhi, Lahore and the Khyber Pass. He then stayed for nearly a year in 1921, working as temporary private secretary to Tukoji Rao I.

Rao was maharajah of the small state of Dewas Senior, now part of Madhya Pradesh in central India. He had little power and few resources, but great personal charm. One of the aims of Forster’s travel memoir, The Hill of Devi (1953), is to praise the ruler as “certainly a genius, and possibly a saint, and he had to be a king.”

Both The Hill of Devi and A Passage to India emphasise personal friendship. Forster’s Cambridge education and his own values had convinced him that friendship was more important than politics.

In A Passage to India, though, little hope is held out for amicable relations between Britishers and Indians at a tense historical moment. This is especially evident at the novel’s end. A voice appears to emanate from the very earth of India. Anticipating a rekindled friendship between Aziz, an Indian doctor, and Fielding, a British teacher, the voice says “No, not yet,” and “No, not there.”

Even so, the novel suggests that it is important to strive for relationships. While the divisive political landscape prevents these from being fully realised, Fielding’s good intentions behind moving to India seem to be endorsed by the novel. He says: “I’m delighted to be here […] there’s my only excuse […] However big a badmash one is — if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”

Forster used his engagement with South Asia to explore relationships and the deep recesses of the subconscious mind. The author has liberal humanist concerns, makes many strong criticisms of the British Raj, and attempts to recognise the racialised other’s humanity. Nonetheless, he repeats some colonial assumptions about Indian people.

The novel revolves around Aziz’s alleged sexual assault of a white woman, Adela Quested. Whether Adela suffers an attack or a psychotic break is never made clear. Less muddy is Aziz’s innocence. What’s more, Forster is lucid on the vicious response to the incident from the British residents of his fictional city of Chandrapore. These Britons slot Adela’s crisis into the racist discourse depicting white women as vulnerable to the scheming, insatiable sexuality of Indians.

Although the independence movement is rarely discussed in explicit terms, it lurks in the text’s margins. The novelist’s emphasis on personal relations leads him to elide the political upheavals taking place in India at the time. The nationalist movement is represented in A Passage to India as a petulant and artificial phenomenon, rather than India’s legitimate reaction to many decades of British colonial domination. Forster writes of “Hindus, Moslems, two Sikhs, two Parsis, a Jain, and a Native Christian tr[ying] to like one another more than came natural[ly].”

This stress on the different religions’ antagonisms is typical of the novel. Forster regularly paints India as vast and diverse (it is described as having a “hundred voices”). He implies that attempts to pin the country to a single cause are futile. Thus, the nationalist movement’s quest to forge a political alternative to British rule is equated with Adela’s doomed desire to see the “real India.” Despite their differences, both approaches are depicted as simplifying India’s complex heterogeneity.

Forster satirises the frequent misunderstandings, unfulfilled promises, and unexplained incidents his characters undergo. One episode is for Forster emblematic of the incomprehensibility of India, since he describes it in both The Hill of Devi and A Passage to India. A dead tree is mistaken for a snake, or a snake for a dead tree — typically the mystery is never cleared up: “Nothing was explained, and yet there was no romance.”

At the centre of Forster’s South Asian experience, then, is a baffling gap, which perhaps finds its way into the Marabar Caves. There Adela and her prospective mother-in-law, Mrs Moore, hear an unsettling echo. This noise evokes the banality of existence, the insufficiency of language to describe phenomena, and — despite Forster’s personal optimism — the inadequacy of human relations.

The hollow echo of “ou-boum” allows the writer to express modernist anxieties. Yet India is being positioned as a backdrop against which to project new literary ideas. India and Indians function in the novel merely as devices for exploring the Western mind.

For many years, critics lauded Forster’s supposedly radical critique of colonialism. Certainly, he often makes blistering rebukes of those Turtons and Burtons keeping Indians out of their whites-only clubs. Yet Forster himself does not entirely escape the Raj’s orientalist assumptions.

In his opening lines, about Chandrapore, Forster depicts the sprawling, labyrinthine disorder of the Indian metropolis. This city is a composite image of disorder and confusion. It is bursting with “filth”, mud, dirt, decaying matter and “excrescence.”

There is no rational quarantining of activities or social life. “Fine” houses are juxtaposed with dirty alleys, buildings collapse into the river, the inanimate seems to merge with the animate, and death is left to fester in the midst of daily life. The Indian city is depicted as a place of irrational proximities, where religion — as embodied by “temples” — is completely ineffective and there is no “civilised” art or taste.

Forster proceeds to draw an explicit contrast between this low form of life and the elevated European quarters, where the rational and comprehensive orchestration of space, light and landscape creates an ordered and coherent “city of gardens.”

100 years on, this vision of the Indian city as at once decaying, opulent and irrational clearly reinforces orientalist ideas. Forster favours friendship over recognition of occupation and structural inequality to his novel’s detriment.

The columnist is Professor of Global Literature at the University of York and author of three books.

X: @clarachambara

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 3rd, 2024

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