Great Indian Novels #7: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

I first read E.M. Forster’s masterwork whilst living in India. The book instantly grabbed hold of me, not just because of its sublime writing and stylistic brilliance, but because of the themes it set out to explore. A Passage to India was published in 1924 and set against the backdrop of the gathering Indian independence movement. The story centres on four characters: Dr. Aziz; his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore; and a young schoolmistress, Miss Adela Quested, newly arrived in India, ostensibly to marry a boorish young Englishman. 

During a trip to the (fictitious) Marabar Caves, Adela mistakenly believes that she is caught alone with Dr. Aziz in one of the caves. She becomes dizzy, panics, and flees in terror. It is assumed that Dr. Aziz has attempted to assault her, a charge that ends with Aziz being put on trial by the British. This trial and its aftermath serve to bring sharply into focus the simmering racial tension between Indians and their British overseers. 

At the heart of the novel is Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor. At the beginning of the novel Aziz debates with friends about whether it is truly possible for an Indian to be the friend of an Englishman. By the end of the novel, having suffered as a result of the ingrained prejudice of the British towards the ‘natives’, he is left in a thoroughly disillusioned state. His earlier attempts to help Adela find the ‘real’ India – his own naïve means of advancing a bridge between the colonialists and their ‘subjects’ – has backfired spectacularly, shattering his belief in those qualities he might have been willing to ascribe to the British: a sense of fair play and justice. Such is his bitterness that when he is visited at the close of the novel by his friend Fielding, he is forced to utter: “I am an Indian at last.” This despite the fact that Fielding is the only Englishman to have attempted to help him. Forster’s suggestion appears to be that the two men can never truly be friends until the British depart the subcontinent. 

A Passage to India is a searing portrayal of the racist attitudes endemic to the British in India and the many ways in which the native Indian population was oppressed by a foreign administration. With the exception of Fielding, none of the British characters in the novel believe in Aziz’s innocence. Aziz’s guilt appears in no doubt to them, because the word of an Englishwoman is always to be believed over the word of an Indian. Indeed, the chief of police openly declares that the Indian character is inherently criminal.

The novel is based on Forster’s experiences in India, and the moral dilemma he saw at the heart of the Raj. He admits to suffering great emotional turmoil in its writing. Indeed, he abandoned the project on several occasions only to be drawn back to it time and again. On publication, the book was greeted with rave reviews and spectacular popularity. Some, however, have criticized his portrayal of India and Indians as unflattering and shallow.

The effort of writing the book appeared to exhaust him. He died 46 years later, having never written again. Not that he needed to. A Passage to India was selected as one of the 100 great works of 20th century literature by the Modern Library, and Time Magazine included it in its list of “All Time 100 Novels”. (The book was filmed in 1984, another David Lean epic that was nominated for eleven Oscars.) For me these accolades are well deserved. This is a genuine literary masterpiece about a particularly factious period on the subcontinent.

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

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