Friday, June 30, 2006

A Passage to India by E M Forster

I read "A Passage to India" by E.M.Forster more than 2 decades back. This was one of the novels prescribed for in the English Elective syllabus in my 12th std. I had read that from the exam point of view. I picked it up again after 23 years. I had a different perception than before. Previously I had done only character studies. This time I could see it in a broader perspective.

The social structure of India under the British Raj has been portrayed very vividly in this book.The eternal clash between the East and the West, and prejudices and misunderstandings has been brought out very well.

All the three religions, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity have been shown to co-exist with each other. A Passage to India has all the dimensions of political situation, psychological effects and different religions. Christianity, though adequate for normal relationship and practical affairs, is too sallow for deeper human relationships. Islam is a faith that is more aesthetic and cultural than a binding spiritual faith. Hinduism does not guide the daily conduct of affairs. This is what is very interesting. Forster could bring out the positive as well as the negative aspects of the different religions so well.

This book has been dubbed anti-British for obvious reasons as the author tends to have a sympathetic view of the Indian under British Raj.

A passage to India concerns the relations between the English and the native population of India during the colonial period in which Britain ruled India. The novel takes place primarily in Chandrapore, a city along the Ganges River notable only for the nearby Marabar caves. The main characters are: Aziz, a Muslim doctor; Godbole, a Hindu Professor; Fielding, the head master of the government college ; Ronald Heaslop, another British official: Mrs Moore and Adela Quested, two visitors from Britain. The relationship between he Indians and the British official speaks a lot about the then British Raj. The British official is ever sceptical of the well-meaning Indian.

Forster ends A Passage to India with a bittersweet reconciliation between Aziz and Fielding, but also with the realization that the two cannot be friends under contemporary conditions. Aziz makes an important concession when he admits that Adela was brave to withdraw her charges, and expresses regret for the aftermath of the Marabar expedition. Aziz thus completes a movement from kindness and generosity of spirit to bitter and cynicism and back. Fielding, in contrast, realizes that he is in fact a true Englishman and belongs among his own race; to defy his race and maintain an active friendship with Aziz would be just, but not pragmatic. This brings back the theme of responsibilities and limitations of racial identity, as Fielding accepts the sacrifices he must make to retain his English identity. In this manner Forster ends A Passage to India as a tragic but platonic love story between the two friends, separated by different cultures and political climates.

Forster does not express any definitive political standpoint on the sovereignty of India in his book. Fielding suggests that British rule over India, if relinquished, would be replaced by a different sovereign that would be perhaps worse than the English. However, Aziz does make the point that it is British rule in India that prevents the two men from remaining friends. Forster thus indicates that British rule in India creates significant problems for India, but does not offer an easy or concrete solution.

Forster's description of the city of Chandrapore in the opening chapter creates interest to read further as one can visualise the scene unfolding before one's eyes.