E.M. Forster: “A Passage to India”

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When I was a senior in high school, my favorite English teacher, Mr. Alwood, agreed to do an independent study with me. He selected four challenging novels he thought I was up to understanding and studying. I think back to those novels now and can’t imagine how a 17-year-old could really have been equipped – intellectually or emotionally – to appreciate them. But in my way, limited by life experience though I was, I did appreciate them.

One of those novels was E.M. Forster’s 1924 book, A Passage to India. The novel hinges on an accusation of rape. One of the main characters is Mrs. Moore, a refined British lady who has come to visit India, still a British colony. Mrs. Moore is sensitive to the cultures and religions of others, and when she visits and enters a Muslim mosque reverently, she forms an unlikely but heartfelt friendship with Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor in the town of Chandrapore.

At first it seems that a bridge can be built between cultures, between the colonizer and the colonized, but when Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore go on an outing to explore the nearby Marabar Caves, Mrs. Moore’s potential daughter-in-law, Adela Quested, feels ill and claims that Dr. Aziz has “insulted” her.

For the rest of the novel, we follow Dr. Aziz’s trial in the British Raj courtroom. Did Aziz attempt to rape Adela? Or was Adela instead overcome by the power and “otherness” of the caves and imagine an assault?

The other key character in the novel is Cyril Fielding, a British headmaster who runs a school for Indians. He, too, is friends with Aziz. Throughout the novel, Fielding and Aziz try to foster a true friendship, but their efforts at knowing each other are strained indeed.

Forster asks in this novel whether there can truly be cross-cultural friendship. Can we reach across cultural, religious, national, and gender divides to meet as human beings?

Forster seems to answer that question through the novel’s ending. Fielding and Aziz are out riding their horses, and the question that opened the novel – can the British and the Indians form real friendships? – comes up again. In a passionate declaration, Aziz asserts that the Indians can drive the Brits out of their country. “India shall be a nation!” he shouts. “No foreigners of any sort! Hindus and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one! Hurrah! Hurrah for India!”

Forster writes:

“If it’s fifty-five hundred years, we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then” – [Aziz] rode against [Fielding] furiously – “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” Fielding asks, holding Aziz affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

Forster ends the novel with these words:

But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

A Passage to India was made into a powerful film by David Lean, who wrote, directed, and edited the film. But the movie closes with a revised ending scene – putting forth the opposite conclusion Forster presents in the novel. Years after the excursion to the Marabar Caves, Aziz and Adela make their peace via correspondence, and Fielding and his wife – Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Stella – see Aziz in India and affirm their friendship.

So crucial to the novel is Forster’s ending that to me all the power of the film – its sweeping treatment of the British Raj and the movement for Indian independence – is undone by the less morally complicated ending Lean slapped on the film. The movie ties things up in a neat bow, offers a pat, feel-good ending in which the divisions between the British and the Indians, between the colonizer and the colonized, between the powerful and the powerless are easily erased.

Arguably Forster’s enduring motto is “Only connect!” It serves as the epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howards End, and it sums up Forster’s feeling about the centrality of human relationships. But in A Passage to India, his last great work, he leaves us unsettled as Fielding and Aziz swerve apart. Despite the fact that both men want to be friends, their places in their respective worlds leave them unable to fully connect. That truth – the impossibility of connecting across human-created divides – is the heart of A Passage to India.

The Guardian named A Passage to India as one of the hundred best novels written in English. To learn about Forster himself, you can go back to Lionel Trilling’s early assessment of the man and his work. A more recent examination of Forster and his fiction can be found in Wendy Moffat’s biography, which provides the first full look at Forster’s somewhat closeted life as a gay man and the impact of his sexuality on his work. The New York Times review of Moffat’s biography provides a good introduction to the themes she considers.

Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer is a fictional biography of Forster; it highlights Forster’s relationship with Syed Ross Masood, an Indian Muslim who was Forster’s unrequited love. Forster said, “But for Masood, I might never have gone to India.” The Guardian offers an exploration of their relationship.

But as always, the best way to experience the work at hand is to curl up with a hard copy. Really . . . isn’t A Passage to India perfect for a cozy armchair and a cup of tea?

Watch and Listen:Watch a clip from the film in which Mrs. Moore and Dr. Aziz meet in a mosque for the first time (the scene starts at 20:46 and ends at 24:52). Then listen as Forster discusses writing novels and his motto “Only connect!” The clip is accompanied by video footage of Forster. Finally, listen as Forster talks about writing A Passage to India.

Image Credit: Portrait of E.M. Forster by Dora Carrington, 1924 or 1925. Public domain. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:E._M._Forster_von_Dora_Carrington,_1924-25.jpg.