“A Passage to India” by E.M. Forster – How classics stand the test of time

This is my review of A Passage to India by E.M. Forster.

Is genuine friendship possible between Indians and the British under colonial rule? Spelt out at both beginning and end, this is the question underlying a novel which, although quite dated, with some arguably stereotyped characters, remains relevant for a vivid portrayal of India, helping us to understand its present state, and also for the exploration of complex human relationships.

Naïve and idealistic, Adela Quested, who has come to India to decide whether or not to marry the young City Magistrate Ronnie Heaslop, is desperate to see the “real” India (not just be fobbed off with elephants). She also dislikes the character traits her fiancé is beginning to display. “His self-complacency, his censoriousness, his lack of subtlety, all grew vivid beneath a tropical sky”.

Keen to please, although quite critical of his colonial masters “who take and do nothing”, Doctor Aziz offers to take Adela with her future mother-in-law, Mrs Moore, on an excursion to the caves in the Malabar Hills. This leads to a bizarre incident with far-reaching repercussions, symbolising the lack of understanding and ultimate gulf between the two groups, British and Indian. Confusion as to what really occurred in the Malabar Caves is inevitable since Forster himself admitted that his mind was a “blur” on the subject, but this does not really matter since it is not fundamental to the book.

Having observed first-hand the insensitivity and arrogance of British administrators and their wives, E.M. Forster is scathing in his portrayal of them. Despite his obvious empathy, the Indians are not spared either. Aziz is ashamed of his filthy lodgings, but fails to insist that his servants remove the flies, their excuse being there is no point since they will only return. Obsequious and self-absorbed, Professor Godbole’s spiritualty seems bogus, when he shows no sympathy for the plight of Aziz, perhaps falsely accused of a crime, but appears more concerned over the choice of name for the schools he plans to establish in his new post.

Laugh-out loud comedy tinged with poignancy is used very effectively to show the continual misunderstandings caused by cultural differences. Aziz impulsively insists on lending his collar stud to his new friend Fielding, only to be disparaged behind his back by Ronnie for the way “the worthy doctor’s collar climbed up his neck” because of his “inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race”. On the train to Malabar, Adela and Mrs Moore are surprised to see the butler emerging from the carriage toilet with poached eggs. More of these are planned for their arrival, together with mutton chops, since Aziz is under the impression that English people eat all the time, so will need substantial refreshment every two hours.

Places are not romanticised either as Forster writes of the squalor and “abased, monotonous mud”. Although mysterious when viewed from the city by twilight, even the Malabar Hills lose their appeal close at hand: “Bland and bald rose the precipices; bland and glutinous the sky….a Brahmany kite flapped with a clumsiness which seemed intentional”. In another incident, “A grassy slope bright with butterflies.. purple hills in the distance” sound pleasant, but there is a sting in the final phrase: “The scene was as park-like as England, but did not cease being queer”. In other words, the Anglo-Indians could not help judging the landscape by what was familiar to them.

Rereading the book, I was impressed by the originality of E.M. Forster’s approach. In his attempts to capture the atmosphere of the Malabar caves which created such confusion in Adela’s mind or the ceremonies at the Hindu temple in Mau, the tone become almost surreal. What sometimes seems like a patronising parody of the latter made me uneasy, but it is offset by the sense of mysticism which only a few of the British, like Mrs Moore or her children Ralph and Stella can begin to comprehend. It is interesting that none of these three is fully developed as a character, perhaps to maintain the mystical element. On somewhat shaky grounds, Mrs Moore becomes a revered symbol of wisdom, a kind of modern goddess in Indian memory, perhaps reflecting how this has happened through the ages.

What was to prove Forster’s last novel took years to complete, as he struggled to achieve what he wished to be his final masterpiece. Although I found many passages brilliant, his experimentation at times falls short, as in the use of a stilted turn of phrase (allowing for the fact that language has changed over a century), or when an important point is introduced too abruptly in a staccato sentence, creating a disjointed effect. Forster appears on the “cusp” of the early 1900s, as he switches from lapses into flowery “Oh reader!” Victorian-style passages to astute, sharp prose which could have been written now. Reaching its court-room climax two-thirds of the way through, the narrative seems to drift after that but on reaching the end I felt the construction of the story is quite effective and certainly stays in the mind breeding fresh thoughts long afterwards.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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