E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic ‘A Passage to India’ exemplifies the unique lens fiction provides on the past and the unique opportunity it offers to step into that past, breathe it in and find out more. Like Alice’s looking glass, a work of fiction allows one to see and enter the author’s world and, if this fiction is historical, there are few forces more potent when it comes to enticing one to delve deeper into an historical period. Entering history through a work of fiction, whilst always a dangerous route, can inspire our imaginations. It allows us to bring the historical facts with which we are later confronted to life in our minds; we can reanimate history for our study.
After that somewhat abstract introduction, we should get back on track. Forster’s novel presents the British Raj just thirty years from its fall in 1947. Of course, the author and his characters don’t know this, but, nearly one hundred years on, the sense of stasis and exhaustion is strikingly prescient. To give a criminally short summary, the story centres on the Muslim Dr Aziz and his interactions with two visiting English women, Mrs Moore, the mother of Chandrapore Magistrate Mr Heaslop, and Miss Quested, the would-be fiancée of Mr Healsop. Aziz takes the women on a trip to the Marabar Caves where Miss Quested believes he attempts to assault her after luring her into a cave. The effects of this event on the people of Chandrapore, the central characters and Anglo-Indian relations become the book’s focus.
It is Forster’s masterful exploration of his characters’ reactions to this event that allows him to replace the block colours typically used to portray Anglo-Indian relations under the Raj with a technicolour of nuance and life. If one of the beauties of history is studying how people affect and are affected by the different social structures of different ages, Forster’s Chandrapore offers a tantalising morsel giving the reader an appetite that can only be satisfied through further historical study. On the British side, the characters of Mr Heaslop and Cyril Fielding represent two contrasting reactions to Aziz’s alleged crime. Heaslop epitomises the ‘Anglo-Indian’ and his mother and prospective fiancée immediately recognise a change in him during his time in India; his openness and humanity has been drained from him and replaced by a deliberate ignorance masquerading as the seasoned wisdom of a British official in India.
A theme that pervades the book is this process of liberal-minded Brits arriving in India and being slowly drained of their humanity and filled instead with an ignorant superiority. British imperialism was wrought with tension from the very beginning and Forster, with depressing realism, highlights how progressive-minded Brits could be hollowed out by being placed in a position of superiority by the institution of the Raj and meekly accept the received wisdom of a cold and repressive colonial government.
In the novel, ‘The Club’ represents the institution of the Raj which houses these ‘Anglo-Indians’ who share the same governing wisdom of distance and superiority. In a pivotal scene, we see the members of the Club in uproar and calling for a military presence on the streets and the metaphorical drawbridge to be raised in response to Miss Quested’s allegations and Aziz’s arrest. The irony of the supposedly wise and rational British making such a melodramatic call for disproportionate reaction epitomises the ignorant herd mentality that the institution of the Raj implanted in ‘Anglo-Indians’.
Fielding, on the other hand, knowing Aziz as an individual, refuses to believe the allegations and professes the doctor’s innocence. As an educator, Fielding symbolically ‘travels light’ refusing to be burdened by the prejudices of the British in India and seeking to connect with individual Indians. Though his relationship with Aziz slowly becomes strained, Fielding loyally defends Aziz not out of a patronising paternalism, but because he believes Aziz is an innocent man regardless of his ethnicity. Fielding certainly represents a more humane ‘Anglo-Indian’ but, by the end of the novel, his relationship with Aziz is clearly tense to the point of incompatibility with the pair’s interactions crippled by the stereotypes of one another with which their colonial relationship has left them. Forster highlights here how colonialism erects walls of preconceptions separating people and artificially defining their relationships. This is perhaps the most striking example of historical institutions shaping people and their relationships, the intricacies of which can only be understood through further historical study.
The central Indian character of the novel is Dr Aziz. Whilst Forster’s portrayal of him unhelpfully encourages certain stereotypes (even the novelist could not escape the prejudices of colonialism), Aziz is complex and certainly captures the tortuous conflict in many Indians about the British Raj. As a member of the educated class, Aziz appreciates certain modernising material benefits the British have brought with them, but, fiercely proud of India’s Mughal heritage, he also feels the degradation of British oppression deeply. The relationship of Britain and India, tethered to each other for over three hundred years, is one of the most fascinating in modern history and Aziz’s attitude, mixing a fierce desire for an independent India free from being the jewel in the British Crown with an invidious feeling of inferiority impressed upon Indians over countless generations, captures this conflictual duality.
Of course, the novel is haunted by its context and Forster undoubtedly implies a number of prejudices and unhelpfully ignores Hindu India. It would have been fascinating to see a British character equally conflicted over their nation’s relationship to India, simultaneously one of imperial conquest and colonialism but, from the 18th century onwards, also one of intense reliance on the subcontinent for Britain’s place as the premium imperial power. Unfortunately, even modern Britain does not seem to have reassessed its historical relationship with India, so Forster’s failings in not writing such a character may be forgiven.
He expertly plays with the problematic idea of British newcomers wanting to see the ‘real India’ as though wanting to see an animal in the wild. However, through his technicolour characters and landscape, he succeeds in painting a version of imperial India that is complex enough to be believable and tantalising enough to encourage historical exploration. Forster’s looking glass might show an India distorted by his contextual prejudices, but he overcomes many of these by revealing complex characters indelibly shaped by their historical circumstances. After reading ‘A Passage to India’, anyone with the smallest passion for history cannot help but want to explore the historical realities of the British Raj more deeply.