A Passage to India(napolis)

by Kenneth Champeon, May 10, 2002 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

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Review of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, Penguin, 1998.

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As you get older, the frank and unrepentant exercise of power becomes less surprising and therefore less offensive. Take the British colonization of India. Through the accumulation of a series of historical accidents (detailed by Jared Diamond in his superb book Guns, Germs, and Steel) Europe became more powerful than the rest of the world. In particular, Great Britain became more powerful than India.

That power wanted to grow, and it did so by cultivating the power of the subcontinent. Then tides turned. Devastated by two world wars, England could no longer afford to maintain its empire and was eclipsed by its bad son and best buddy, the United States, which has replaced its haughty father as the alleged source of all the good and evil in the world. In Orwell's Burmese Days a Burman's first memory is "watching the British troops march victoriously into Mandalay. He remembered the terror he had felt of those columns of great beef-fed men...." Interesting, this mention of beef: Diamond locates European ascendancy in, among other things, the continent's abundance of highly nutritious food. The Burman "had grasped that his own people were no match for this race of giants." And so they weren't. But to bemoan this fact is rather like bemoaning Niagara Falls. Power has no conscience and no self-control. Individual people can act morally. States, as a general rule, do not.

A decade before Orwell published Burmese Days, E. M. Forster published A Passage to India. Both novels depict the Raj as unjust. But the difference in age of the two authors at the time their books were published - Forster was older by about 14 years - lends to each book a very different tone. Orwell was an Angry Young Man who loathed the Empire. Burmese Days is dark and tragic, and its author is not sanguine about Anglo-Indian relations. Forster is more hopeful. His Empire is not so much terrible as it is ignorant. It tries to dominate a country that it cannot begin to understand. Very few of Orwell's characters are likeable. Very few of Forster's are not.

A Passage to India turns upon the age-old question: "Some of my best friends are ___, but would you let your daughter go spelunking with one?" Meet Dr. Aziz. He is a very nice Indian Muslim. He befriends two very nice English women, whom he then invites to a place called the Marabar Caves. While Aziz and the younger of the women, Miss Quested, are roaming about the caves, Quested is possessed with the idea that Aziz has assaulted her. She reports this to the English back in town, and all but one of them suddenly want nothing else except to see Aziz etherized upon a charpoy. The one dissenter is Fielding, who braves his countrymen's scorn in order to get Aziz (who pleads not guilty) set free. Equality under the law, one of the supposed boons of British rule, receives a grand test.

Forster's work is not just about the relationship between the English and Indians in India, but about the relationship between dominant and subject races the world over, about the perennial struggle between power and justice. The racial politics involved in the trial of Aziz are identical to those involved in the trial of, say, O. J. Simpson or the cops that tenderized Rodney King. Should the judge be dark or fair? Should separatists be allowed as lawyers? Will the verdict be swayed by the desire to prevent riots? During the proceedings, Aziz's infuriated lawyer exclaims, "I am not defending a case, nor are you trying one. We are both of us slaves." But it's not just the English and Indians who can't just all get along. The Indian Hindus and Muslims are at each other's throats too. Often the only thing uniting them is their wariness of the English. Aziz, though very nice, is also very Muslim. He complains about idolatry and associates Hindus with "cow-dung"; his Hindu friend associates Muslims with violence. And then of course there is the matter of diet. Aziz plans his excursion to Marabar:

"There was the question of alcohol: Mr Fielding, and perhaps the ladies, were drinkers, so must he provide whiskey-sodas and ports?.... There was the problem of [Hindu] Professor Godbole and his food, and of Professor Godbole and other people's food.... A slice of beef upon a distant table would wreck his happiness.... But over ham Aziz's own religion raised its voice."

Graham Greene wonders somewhere whether Vietnam once it became independent would regret the loss of Western culture; would feel that it had disappeared from the world whose center Forster locates in the Mediterranean - "the human norm"; would miss opera, emancipated women, a fine Cabernet, progress, hope. There is something like this in Forster's India, an anticipation of loss should the English go away. What makes Aziz so pathetic is that he tries so hard to impress the English until they betray him, and even then he tries to hate them but cannot. "All Indians long to do," writes Forster, is to be "allowed to show courtesy to visitors from another country."

This is demonstrably true, and it explains why so many visitors to India mourn their departure. But why then are so many visitors also put off by India and even frightened by it? Forster offers an answer. "Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession." Affection, as the idiom goes, can be smothering.

Ultimately Forster decides that the Indians and English are, for the time being anyway, incompatible. They can pretend and desire to be friends, but they cannot be friends - "not yet." They are too different. In a famous passage later reiterated by Orwell, Forster suggests that the Indian's vice is suspicion, the Westerner's vice hypocrisy. Superstition remains a sticking point, and an Indian complains, "We can't keep engagements; we can't catch trains. What more than this is the so-called spirituality of India?" Even pro-Indian Fielding is aware of the "profundity of the gulf that divided him from them" and he becomes exasperated by the nebulous logic of garrulous Godbole: "And similarly when suffering occurs," Fielding mutters, "and so on and so forth, and everything is nothing and nothing something." You're doing my head in, as the Britons now put it. People with insurmountable differences can come together only by becoming less different. This seems self-evident. Intimacy requires commonality. The price of human brotherhood is that every human must become more identical, must become Nietzsche's Last Man. To a degree this is already happening. We are uniting around Baywatch, McDonald's, T-shirts and jeans. But it is far from clear that this is an improvement. There may come a day when a passage to India will be much like a passage to Indianapolis, when an Aziz and a Fielding can be friends but have nothing interesting to say to each other, when power is in equilibrium but there is nothing new under the sun.

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