Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Passage to India by EM Forster

After reading the reviews of A Passage to India by EM Forster in blogosphere and finding it deferentially talked about in interviews of noted writers writing on India, I had been looking forward to reading the book.

A Passage to India is set in a small town, Chandrapore, which is home to all that characterized the relationship between the natives and their rulers, social divisions, cynicism about the other, etc . Mrs. Moore visits Chandrapore with Miss Adela Quested to get her married to her son Ronnie. Adela is curious to know the ‘real’ India which she believes only a native can help her with. In comes Aziz, an anglicized doctor and a perfect bridge between the British and the native. They meet through a social acquaintance and Aziz proposes to take Mrs. Moore and Adela to the Marabar Caves. While returning from Marabar Caves by train, Aziz is arrested on the charge of making sexual advances on Adela in the Caves.

The book was published in 1924, a time when, thanks to the national movements taking place in India, a political awareness had developed among the masses about the present and future of India and its place in the commity of nations. And the book presents glimpes of that. 

But political awareness had hardly narrowed the gap between the two races. You have to read the book to know how deep the divide between the two societies ran. Of course, there were occasional intersections of paths but without any integration. This divide was consciously maintained by British officials as a matter of policy because distance, they thought, would help establish their superiority over the subject race. After Aziz has been arrested, an English character says each time there is an attempt to break the divide, a crisis of this nature will ensue.

What makes the reading more enjoyable helping you understand the flavor of the time is a very informative foreward, slightly long, by Pankaj Mishra. (The one I read is Penguin Classics.) It informs that Forster visited India around the time of the First World War and after returning to England, he had written Maurice, not A Passage to India. It had taken him 10 years to start writing Passage. It means by the time Forster had started writing the book India’s political atmosphere had considerably changed since he had visited India. Probably this lack first-hand experience explains why Forster says nothing about what was happening during this time in the larger India. Although telling so would be slightly outside the immediate scope of the plot, the reader would have enjoyed a little sprinkling of the general political climate as those were exciting times.

The book, however, often refers to Mughal rulers to indicate how Mughal greats like Akbar and Babar have remained a part of popular imagination and discourse.

Foster often uses farfetched analogies to explain his points. The analogies read well but at times they can be too long and break the reading flow. The story is generally slow-moving with some occasional fizzes, like when Adela accuses Aziz of misconduct, the pace of the story suddenly peaks only to slow down again.

India has changed beyond wildest of imaginations since Foster wrote the book, although our social attitudes have remained the same in many ways. So while Passage is a passage to the past, it also throws up what is current and relevant to the India of today. Perhaps A Passage to India was not an irrelevant book to read on the 64th year of India’s independence.

A Passage to India is a must for those interested in British India.

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