Anyone who’s been reading Book to the Future for a while now will know that I’ve developed a bit of a literary crush on Edward Morgan Forster. It started when I read Where Angels Fear to Tread, then, two weeks/years later, I read The Longest Journey…
But it was Howards End that turned my mere crush into utter, unbridled infatuation. Swoon.
However, after being disappointed by that other dead guy with initials just a couple of weeks ago – yes, I’m talking about you, Mr. Lawrence – I was a little worried about picking up A Passage to India this week. What if it wasn’t as good as Howards End? What if…I didn’t like it? (gasp!)
But this is A Passage to India! Surely I couldn’t be disappointed by A Passage to India? After all, it’s widely acknowledged as E. M. Forster’s Great Masterpiece. That’s what the blurb on the back of my copy reads, at least. So it must be true. Right?
A Passage to India
by E. M. Forster
Published in 1924
“Having seen one such cave, having seen three, four, fourteen, twenty-four, the visitor returns…uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull experience or any experience at all. He finds it difficult to discuss the caves, or to keep them apart in his mind…”
– E. M. Forster, A Passage to India, page 116
The passage above describes the Marabar Caves; a set of catacombs high in the hills above Chandrapore, the Indian village which forms the setting for E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. But, read another way, this same passage could describe A Passage to India itself.
After reading A Passage to India, I feel totally unsure of what I’ve just experienced. Was it dull? Was it interesting? How do I even begin to describe in words my reaction to this complicated, confusing book?
…And, more importantly, how am I meant to review a book when I can barely gather my thoughts on it? Gosh. This is going to be an interesting review…
Let’s begin with the plot. A Passage to India takes place when India was under British rule. Towards the beginning of the book, we’re witness to an unlikely encounter: Mrs. Moore, an elderly English lady, escapes unnoticed from the company of the other white people at the Club and wanders out into the cool Indian night, entering a mosque. There, she meets Dr. Aziz, a Muslim Indian, and the two talk, sharing a brief, almost magical moment in time, before retreating back to their own separate worlds, the meeting having made a positive, lasting impression on both of them.
Mrs. Moore is in India with a young companion, Adela Quested, who she hopes will marry her son, Ronny, Chandrapore’s City Magistrate. It’s a bizarre kind of arranged marriage. Adela fancies herself as a bit of a rebel, and makes it known that she wants to experience India for herself – the Real India, as opposed to the sanitised, Europeanised India that’s usually paraded to outsiders. While her husband-to-be is disgusted, Mrs. Moore is equally fascinated.
The two English ladies begin to explore Indian culture, meeting the Chandrapore locals. Mrs. Moore introduces Adela to Dr. Aziz. When Dr. Aziz suggests an expedition to the mysterious Marabar Caves, Adela and Mrs. Moore excitedly accept and prepare for the outing. During the trip, Mrs. Moore falls ill, and Dr. Aziz and Adela wander away to explore the caves together – alone.
After a strange encounter in the caves, Adela emerges, shaken and confused. Upon returning to Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested for rape.
As far as the English legal system is concerned, the colour of his skin marks Aziz as guilty before his trial has even begun…a trial that threatens to tear sleepy Chandrapore to pieces.
While Forster’s other works have a kind of subtle humour about them, A Passage to India is different. It’s Forster at his most serious. There’s no social comedy here. There’s actually a strange sense of sadness that hangs around A Passage to India like a black shawl. While Howards End was all about the importance of reaching out to others, A Passage to India shows us, depressingly, that sometimes, it’s simply not possible for two people to ever overcome the differences between them.
It’s almost as if Forster has set out to parody his own motto; Only Connect. If, like me, you adored Howards End, it’s a little painful to see the revelation that forms the heart of this beautiful novel being undermined by its own author.
In India, Adela Quested makes a determined effort to fight against the complacency, the racism of the people around her – including her intended husband. Adela is full of intentions. But in India, intentions simply aren’t enough. Ultimately, Adela’s presence in India causes more harm than good.
The first time we meet Dr. Aziz, he’s having a conversation with his friends about English people. His friends ask if it’s possible for an Indian to ever be friends with an Englishman…and it’s a question that remains unanswered until the very last page of the book, when it’s resolved in a sad, symbolic final moment. Try as they might, the characters of A Passage to India simply cannot be friends. They can’t connect. Something always gets in the way. Even between the Indian characters, there are boundaries of religion and caste to keep them apart.
(Anyway. I’m getting preachy. This isn’t an essay, it’s a book review. I promise I won’t mention Howards End again, okay?)
A Passage to India is a difficult book. Reading it is difficult. And then, after you’ve turned the final page, you’re left with a head full of questions, and the task of piecing your thoughts on the book together.
What’s so difficult about A Passage to India? Like Forster’s portrayal of India itself, the novel is fraught with problems that aren’t solved and questions that can’t be answered. There are so many absences, moments when language fails to describe experience. Failure and inadequacy are constant themes running through the novel. Writing about these things – failure, silence, the ineffable – that takes some guts, but Forster manages it so well. It takes an amazing writer to even consider writing about the barriers of language.
A Passage to India manages to bring India to life in all its imperfect glory. It’s hot. It’s dusty. It’s uncomfortable. You can almost feel it yourself. Forster makes it all seem so perfectly real. There are passages where I found myself falling into a kind of trance…
But, then again, there were other passages that weren’t so effective. There’s one big problem with A Passage to India. It’s divided into three parts, and all the interesting stuff happens in the middle part. The beginning and end of the book feel so flat compared to the vivid beauty of the middle section. Getting through the first part of the book isn’t easy going. I found myself feeling impatient, wondering when Forster was going to finish all the meticulous setting-up of the story and actually get to the story itself. Then, in the third part, the ending seems tacked on and a little pointless (though, as I said earlier, the final page is utter perfection). A Passage to India is good, but it’s far from perfect.
Or, at least, it seems that way to me right now.
The problem with reading and reviewing a book every week is that some books were simply not designed to be read over the course of a very short time. A Passage to India has left a kind of scar on my mind. It’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. I’m still struggling with my feelings regarding A Passage to India. I need time to think it over – but, unfortunately, time is not a luxury I can afford. This review should have been online a week ago.
Hence, consider my rating for A Passage to India an interim rating. It may be increased at a later date. Or – it might decrease. Only time will tell.
There’s one thing I know for sure about A Passage to India: this is not E. M. Forster’s Great Masterpiece. As far as I’m concerned, that honour belongs to Howards End.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Yes. I can’t make up my mind what to think of A Passage to India. Read it for yourself, and see if you can make up your mind. It’s the kind of book you absolutely have to experience for yourself. If you do, come back and let me know what you thought. If you can…
In a word: