Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

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.

Everyone arrives 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.

Similarly, Mr. 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.

For 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.

Even 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 their nationality.

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.

That 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.

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