icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

A Passage to India

 by E.M. Forster



Forster's subject is India under British rule and his principal character, the very dignified Dr. Aziz, is a Moslem who works in an English-run hospital.  Secondary characters in this third person omniscient narrative are English, Hindu, and Moslem.  Published in 1924, its subject is friendship across racial and cultural boundaries.  The love between Aziz and Mrs. Moore, an elder English woman who is in India as a visitor, and Cyril Fielding, an English resident, unfolds through dialogue that expresses their deepest feelings.  That these moments of honesty rise up within a racist society makes them seem even more remarkable.  Forster skewers the English, making them appear ridiculous, culminating with Miss Quested's sexual hysteria, moving her to accuse Aziz of an unspecified impropriety we are meant to assume is rape, but in actuality is an over-active imagination pressured by racism.  That it happened inside a cave, a dark, damp, echoing setting, is wonderfully comic.  But Forster's objective is more complicated than simple ridicule of the English, or simple exposure of their cruelties.  After all, Aziz, the accused, is locked up in a jail cell because bail is not allowed for so "heinous" a crime.  Forster has a greater, more inclusive vision and we see it at play in the courtroom scene as Miss Quested testifies.  In the course of her account, she has a moment of clarity.  She finds her way through the blur of paranoid fantasy to an actual memory, and realizes, as all eyes are upon her, that Aziz had not been in the cave at all.  She was mistaken.  She recognizes that the heat, the darkness, and the terrible echo had produced a hallucination and she emerges from it, just in time, and in a very public way, to save the life of a respectable and good man.  


This courtroom scene stretches across sixteen pages.  Miss Quested is brought into the courtroom with her English friends and seated.  There is a change in seating, a chant from outside as Indians call for a missing witness, and the back and forth between lawyers and officials, yet despite this busyness, Miss Quested, experiencing a moment of true existential aloneness, slowly reviews the details of the day the attack occurred.  The reader feels the pressure from the English seated around her, hears their racist remarks, and understands how easy it would be for her to give in to their view.  But Miss Quested, a confused and pathetic woman, raises her eyes.  She sees the criminal, she sees his friend Fielding with a native child on his lap, and she recognizes many of Chandrapore's residents in the audience though she doesn't know them personally.  It is a tense and pregnant moment.  And then she says, "I'm afraid I have made a mistake... Dr. Aziz never followed me into the cave."  It is perhaps one of the most dramatic reversals in all of literature and the sixteen pages that create the heat, chaos, and tension within the crowded room make it utterly believable.  The English immediately desert her, the Indians applaud her, and it is Fielding, the outsider, Aziz's friend, who gives her shelter after the debacle.  


A Passage to India celebrates truth, beginning with the chance encounter in the Moslem temple between Aziz and Mrs. Moore, who has wandered there from the "club" and knows she must remove her shoes before entering.  It is a sign of respect that surprises Aziz and opens the door to his appreciation for her as a human being.  They have a remarkable conversation, honest and heartfelt, but from there, the thread of truth that winds through the narrative, goes into hiding, and won't appear again until the dialogue that develops the friendship between Aziz and Fielding.  It is finally brought out into the open with Miss Quested's unexpected embrace of it.  Truth matters, and friendship across racial and cultural differences nourishes and protects it.  This is a vision that speaks to our era with the same urgency it must have had in the 1920s.  
This novel has been on my shelf for years.  I'd probably started it once and discovering that the opening moved at a slow pace, put it down.  This time I was ready.  During the pandemic, I'm very far from my beloved Central Library of Brooklyn, and though I can still access their vast digital collection, and I'm grateful for that, I needed to have the pleasure of a book with actual pages where I could make marginal notes.


And make notes I did.  Because although the build-up, or, according to the Freytag triangle, the rising action, happens at a more leisurely pace than a contemporary reader is used to, the climax in the courtroom is worth waiting for.  It is a scene of great emotional richness, and all of the elements developed during the rising action, are crucial to its effect.  The falling action is a true unraveling of expectations, and in terms of novel structure, the climax happens exactly where it should, three quarters of the way through the narrative with a steep denouement involving much chaos and re-ordering.  


The novel models these craft issues for writers:


use of setting; modulation of narrative distance; building of hallucinatory experiences, both ecstatic and paranoid; development of a believable reversal; dialogue that develops and reveals character