A Passage to India – E. M. Forster

Author background
E. M. Forster was born to a well-off middle class family. He lost his architect father when he was very young. A large legacy saw to it that he did not have to work for a living. He travelled extensively, often accompanied by his mother. The Passage to India was begun in 1913 soon after his first trip to India but published only in 1924. During his second visit, he was employed as the secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas. This allowed him to observe the complicated social system in India with communal misunderstandings and tensions.

Relevance of the Title
The Title Passage to India was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem by the same name. Whitman had been deeply influenced by Eastern philosophy, Indian in particular. In the poem, he sings of the merging of the antiquity of India and the modernity of America. However, Forster, more realistically, knew of the tensions that lay beneath the Indian society with religions and castes causing deep divisions. On a literal level, it refers to the arrival of Adela Quested and her aunt in India.

Main Themes
The novel is set in a time when India was governed by the British. All aspects of life were controlled by the rulers who did not understand the psyche of the Indians. The British introduced rules which were common for all but people resented this as age old practices went against the new rules. The British declared that they were on a “civilizing mission” disregarding the fact that the Indians already had a civilization that was thousands of years old. Forster’s own skepticism about the prospects of India as an independent nation colored his judgment. Not only did it succeed as a nation after independence, it did better than some other nations which had become independent at around the same.

The British brought with them Victorian attitudes about women being the weaker sex who had to be chaperoned and protected at all times. They also had the notion that the English were at risk of being assaulted by the ‘natives’. Statistics reveal that it was the local women who were abused by the British officials. The Indians believed that the English women were of lax moral standards, forming and breaking relationships easily.

Religion is a dividing force in The Passage to India. While the majority religion was Hinduism, the British who were ruling India followed Christianity. Within India, there were many religions which were in conflict with each other. One reason for skepticism for India’s existence as an independent nation was this inter-religious conflict.

Dr. Aziz
Dr. Aziz is a popular doctor of Chandrapore. He is a widower with three young children. He is intelligent and friendly. He is readily makes friends with Adela Quested, Mrs. Moore and Cyril Fielding. But for his labours, he is falsely accused by Adela of attempted sexual assault. Naturally, he gets upset by this unfair accusation. Though later, Adela testifies that it had not happened and that she had been overwrought by the darkness and closed atmosphere of the caves, Dr. Aziz loses his reputation in the town for some time at least. There is much hostility among the British community. This experience sours his attitude to the British and he maintains that friendship with the British will be possible only when they cease to be rulers.

Cyril Fielding
He is the principal of the government college in Chandrapore. He does not consider the Indians to be uncivilized and backward. In fact he seeks out the company of several Indians including Dr. Aziz. When Fielding supports Dr. Aziz against Adela’s accusations, the British community censures him but he sticks to his stance. Fielding is dignified, impartial and open minded.

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Adela Quested
She is the young woman who comes to see the country where she may have to live if she were to marry a young British civil servant who is posted in India. Adela wants to see the real India, not the artificial one that exists within the British community. She is high strung by nature and in the dark caves with its dank atmosphere, she imagines that Dr. Aziz who is a friend has tried to sexually assault her. She is brave to openly admit this as it sets off a huge amount of gossip. She is even braver to realize that Aziz is innocent and admit that too in the court.

Adela Quested and the elderly Mrs. Moore are two British women who have come to Chandrapore in central India to see for themselves the ‘real’ India. Adela is acquainted with Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny Healsop; the friendship may develop into an engagement if Adela decides that she likes to live in India. Dr. Aziz is in the civil service in Chandrapore. He is ambivalent in his attitude to the British; he cannot make up his mind about whether real friendship with them is at all possible while they remain ruler and ruled. Later, he meets Mrs. Moore in a mosque which she is exploring and the two strike a friendship that surprises Aziz.

After a few days, at the Collector’s party, Adela meets more of the British community. One of them is Cyril Fielding who is the principal of the government college. While he considers her unusual in
wanting a friendship with the Indians, he does not consider her particularly intelligent being a product of the warped Western educational system. Fielding invites Adela and Mrs. Moore to tea. At Adela’s insistence, Dr. Aziz is invited too. The tea party is very pleasant until Ronny comes in suddenly and is rude to Dr. Aziz. Adela realizes that she does not love him and does not want to spend her life with him. But later at night they get caught in an accident and the shared excitement makes her commit to Ronny once again.

A while after, Dr. Aziz plans an expedition to the Marabar caves for those of his circle. Dr. Fielding and a few others miss the train so Aziz, Adela and Mrs. Moore go ahead hoping the others will follow by a later train. Inside the cave, Mrs. Moore is unnerved by the heat, darkness and lack of air; she does not wish to go any farther inside. Couple of guides stay with her. Adela and Dr. Aziz go in with guides. Adela is again beset with doubts regarding her love for Ronny. Maybe she is a little attracted to Dr. Aziz. She asks him whether he has more than one wife as Muslim men often had more. Aziz considers the question offensive and he walks away from her into another cave. When he comes back, he finds that Adela has disappeared; the guide who was with them has no idea where she has gone. Aziz finds her broken binoculars a little distance away. He wends his way outside to see if Adela has reached there. Fielding and the rest of the party have arrived; they say that Adela had come out of the caves in a disturbed state. Now she has gone back to Chandrapore. Dr. Aziz does not think of the incident any further but that night, in Chandrapore, he is arrested for the attempted rape of Adela according to the complaint she has filed.

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The British community is agitated; so are the Indians who think Dr. Aziz is incapable of such obscene behavior. Fielding also supports him much to the annoyance of the British. Mrs. Moore is very disturbed and decides to embark for Britain without further delay. Adela is overwrought and ill. During the trial, Adela testifies that she was mistaken in accusing Dr. Aziz; she now declares that no assault took place. Ronny promptly breaks off the engagement. Aziz is set free but the experience makes want no further contact with the British and moves to another town far away. Adela leaves for England.

Dr. Aziz now works as the Chief Physician to the Raja of Mau. One day, two years later, he runs into Fielding and some of his friends. Though reluctant at first, he renews his friendship with Fielding but he is still guarded. According to Aziz, unrestrained friendship is not yet possible between rulers and the ruled.

The Caves
The caves symbolize everything that is dark and inscrutable in nature and in the human mind. For both the native Indians and the British who are conquering rulers, it presents parts of themselves they cannot understand and find difficulty in acknowledging. Each character who is inside comes to realize things about themselves that had remained hidden; For Adela, it is the absence of love for Ronny; for Mrs. Moore, it is a waning interest in spirituality.

1. The roads, named after victorious generals and intersecting at right angles, were symbolic of the net Great Britain had thrown over India. He felt caught in their meshes.

The roads that the British had made in India were named after their generals who had been victorious in various battles. These were in strict grid form. Dr. Aziz felt that the British were trying to control every aspect of life in India.
2. “They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better. I give any Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton. It is only the difference of a letter. And I give any Englishwoman six months.”

These words spoken by Hamidullah, a lawyer educated in England refers to the racist attitude that the people from England adopt when they come to India. While in England, people were courteous and polite to them but the British who came to India went out of their way to treat the Indians shabbily. Here the women were worse than their husband. They succumbed to the racist attitude faster.

3. “She was my wife. You are the first Englishman she has ever come before. Now put her photograph away.”

This passage is often quoted to illustrate how men consider women to be their possessions that can be displayed and then locked up. Here, Dr. Aziz’s wife is not a living person; it is her photograph that is being displayed. But Aziz still considers her his possession which can be displayed according to his desires.

4. “You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”

This statement by Mrs. Turton exemplifies the racist attitudes of most of the whites in India at that time. They did not for a moment forget that they considered themselves superior to the Indians. Very condescendingly, she says that some of the “Ranis” or Queens could grudgingly be considered to be their equals. By one stroke she elevates the white women to the level of royalty.