Sunday, 29 January 2017

No. 708: Book Review: A Passage to India By E. M. Forster

E. M. Forster’s novel of 1924 is fundamentally a zeitgeist, depicting the tension of the British Raj during the early twentieth century. Exploring relations between the British and their Indian subjects, A Passage to India is a masterly portrait of a society caught between conflicts of an imperialist regime and the ripple effects of these engrained biases upon political, cultural, social and economical interactions of the two racial classifications.

The plot focuses upon three leading characters: Adela Quested, Cyril Fielding and Dr Aziz. When British-born Adela Quested and Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they are each ‘desirous of seeing the real India’ (p. 18), frequently denied to them due to the insular prejudice of the English ex-patriots residing in India. Upon meeting Mrs Moore in a mosque, Dr Aziz, a cultivated Indian Muslim, becomes a figure of intrigue for the women; he agrees to guide the women around the “real India” they seek. However, during an excursion to the Marabar Caves, a mysterious incident occurs which results in an ensuing scandal involving Dr Aziz. This scandal rouses the violent passions and bigotry amongst both the local English and indigenous Indian communities of the Chandrapore region. This event becomes a subject of huge contention between two tribes of people residing in India under the British Raj. 

Forster’s novel is quite literally a snapshot of British-Indo relations in the past. Forster based the text
upon his own travelling experiences across India, and therefore is his own experience of India under the British Raj. Relations between the British and Indians are under a lot of strain within this text, there is a huge amount of prejudice, distrust, condescension and blame. Each race believes themselves superior. There are few exceptions to that judgmental perspective: for instance, each of the protagonists appears to openly defy these naturalised views, at least in the beginning of the novel. However, over the course of a life-changing event involving violation and accusations, stereotypes and racial preconceptions are reinforced.

Perhaps what strikes me most in A Passage to India is that the reader becomes acclimated to the slow unfolding nature of the knitted quilt of life in Chandrapore. Then, in a sudden, intellectually technical and thrilling move, Forster quite literally pulls apart this quilt fragmenting the reality the reader has come to know. The mastery of this storytelling technique is to admired. One could liken the experience of reading to that of skiing – the first half is climbing the slope in the ski lift and viewing the stunning landscapes around you, but suddenly as you embark down the cliff, you realise you’re on a black slope and all sense of security is thrown out the window.

I think the text is successive in a number of ways; it is stylistically and mechanically beautiful, the writing style is thrilling and compelling to read; and yet I believe there are certain elements that prevent a five star rating. In my opinion, the ending of the novel felt rushed and in a sense “Disney-ified” – everyone reached a moralistic ending, despite the harsh realities each had endured in their pasts. It seemed as if Forster wanted all of the characters to have a happy ending to reinforce his
overarching message, but this then detracts from the fictional diegesis he has presented. He wanted to educate his readers about the difficult relationships between racial groups in India, to establish the major issues to enable greater understanding and implement change. The argument presented is that redemption and friendship are possible after the tirades of a colonial agenda, demonstrating that power imbalances fuelled by racial profiling hinder noble relations. Whilst this is an inspiringly optimistic message, I think interactions between an oppressed and oppressing class are not so simplistically intersecting and forgiven. There is great tension prevalent in these associations, which include immense baggage that Forster is sweeping under the carpet.  I think for me, this forgiveness was too much to expect from any oppressed person, there was too much of the “happily ever after” sentiment, but I do respect Forester’s theory and attempt to break down colonial boundaries.

In conclusion, I think that this is a text that everyone should read. In light of the current post-Brexit, Trump-ruling world; this is a text that asks readers to challenge racial preconceptions and notions of ruling colonial influences over the native underdog. This is an incredible lesson to provide and that is why I would recommend all read this and ready themselves for the rollercoaster ride of emotions occurring at the crux of the text.


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