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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book Review: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

A Passage to India was on the list of books I noted in June that I'd bought and never read. Since then I've received several nudges towards it so I thought I'd bite the bullet and finally get around to reading it.

The plot of the novel seems fairly simple: after an incident in a cave an English woman accuses an Indian doctor of assault which sets the English and Indians against each other. However, this brief analysis disregards the complexity of the world which Forster depicts in A Passage to India. Adela Quested's woes are brought on by her desire to see the 'real' India, primarily because the English exist separately from the Indians. The gulf between the two is highlighted on numerous occasions during the first third of the novel, coming to a head after Adela's accusation in the second section. The final third demonstrates that, as things stand, the people of the two nations cannot yet be friends.

All of the characters are well drawn and realistic. If Forster disparages anyone it is the English oppressors rather than the Indian subjects. But he is also at pains to demonstrate the divisions in India between Moslems and Hindus. Things are not as straightforward as England v. India and characters are utilised to show the different shades of life. Mrs Moore, Adela's prospective mother-in-law is the first English character the reader encounters. She has a slight altercation with Dr. Aziz, the alleged perpetrator of the later crime against Adela, about wearing shoes in mosques. She has already removed hers which surprises Aziz. Mrs Moore's attitude is the one which best describes Forster's sympathy towards India and, by offering her as a mouthpiece so early on, all other impressions are judged into relation to Mrs Moore's and often come up short. A few pages after this encounter with Aziz, Mrs Moore's son, the City Magistrate, shows all the contempt we come to expect from the English when he says, "So he called to you over your shoes. Then it was impudence. It's an old trick. I wish you had had them on." (p27) This simple sentence sets up the tensions that dominate the novel.

Forster excels at description and this is used to great effect in this particular novel. India comes alive on the page, in as vivid detail as I can remember in fiction. Nowhere is this more useful than in the very first chapter:

"The sky settles everything - not only climates and seasons, but when the earth shall be beautiful. By herself she can do little - only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars, or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun, infused in it daily, size from the prostrate earth. No mountains infringe on the curve. League after league the earth lies flat, heaves a little, is flat again. Only in the south, where a group of fists and fingers are thrust up through the soil, is the endless expanse interrupted. These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves." (p6-7)

I'd recommend this book to anyone, primarily because the theme of tensions between two cultures is still as applicable today as it was a century ago.

This is a good essay on the origin of A Passage to India.

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