Can there ever be friendship between the colonizer and colonized? Individuals from each group? Can that trust last? Can it flourish? What happens when events put it under stress?
Forster has no easy
answers in this book, as he dissects British colonial rule in India, and
its impact on Indians and the British who have come there expressly to
rule over India.
Adele Quested comes over to India with her
prospective mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore. She wanted to see the country
before she made up her mind whether or not to marry Ronny. Once there,
she is determined to "see the real India" and not to become like the
class- and race-bound community of the English.
there wanting that, she is told. They change. The English think she
will see how the Indians are not to be trusted. The Indians know that
enough time being around people who are constantly telling you they
aren't to be trusted will warp your perceptions.
Fielding, who runs a school, has stayed largely apart from English
society, and has mostly kept his autonomy. He becomes friends with Dr.
Aziz, a Muslim doctor who, despite his suspicions, wants to believe he
can be friends with both Fielding and Mrs. Moore.
Then, on an
outing to the Marabar Caves, an incident occurs. But what occurs, and
who is involved? The incident causes a crisis, and causes the English to
demand that everyone fall into line and support an Englishwoman, no
matter what. Fielding is unable to do so. He becomes persona non grata.
the Indian population, the charges against Dr. Aziz throw them into a
rage - with little evidence and no investigation, his guilt is presumed
by the British legal system.
The incident becomes a flashpoint for long-simmering anger over the power of the British in India.
after it is resolved, and one would think that Aziz would trust
Fielding, the man who stood by him the entire time, cultural
expectations on both sides mean that even after the crucible, trust is
not easily maintained, and far too easily broken. When power is so
unequal, it is difficult, if not impossible, to extend the benefit of
the doubt to those who hold power, even if only through the virtue of
The effect of colonial power on individuals,
both colonizers and colonized is examined, and no easy way out is found.
Forster creates a broad range of characters, from the good-intentioned
to the authoritarian, and puts them all in a pressure cooker.
pressure cooker does not create tension, it allows the tensions that
were already there to come to the point of exploding. And because the
incident at the Marabar Caves centres around an English woman, gender
expectations, and the ways in which the protection of white womanhood is
at the core of colonial rhetoric, most of the British react with
something near hysteria.
A Passage to India finds the
colonial project deeply flawed, and exposes its worst assumptions and
difficulties through a merciless eye. Even those who genuinely want to
build bridges between the British and the Indian populations find that,
in the end, it is difficult if not impossible.