13 Dec

A Passage to India and the Question of Difference


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The turn of the twentieth century ushered in the ghost of an institution that if not deceased was certainly dying. The esteem of Anglo largesse and of global control was in its death throes and rather than succumbing to a quick and painless demise, Britain would endure until the last gasps of Rule Britannia had been wrung from its Hydra like necks. Britain was bereft, bankrupt and morally destitute, having outstayed its welcome in so many far flung outposts: occupied lands that were slowly becoming conscious of the fact that they could govern themselves and no longer required the heavy imprint of the British boot or the nursemaid of Imperialism. The sense of burgeoning modernity, and the twilight of Empire can be found in the work of modernists writers such as E.M. Forster who, although deprecating, had sufficient style to not speak overtly ill of the dead. His novel A Passage to India is reminiscent of a guest who having overstayed his invitation still elicits fond memories despite the knowledge that he’ll never be welcome again. Forster’s prose style, though not polemic, is representative of anti-colonialist sentiment. As such his novel, in the modernist style, contributes a pessimistic view with regard to nationalism and an awareness of the necessity for change: “a progressive attitude that advocates societal reconfiguration and a conscious recognition of the reevaluation of Western culture.” (Lackey.4) His subtle denunciation of preceding tradition and the recognition of “other” is what make him a modernist.

            Rudyard Kipling when countering antidisestablishmentarians argued that in order to guarantee the freedoms of collectives such as the Bloomsbury group (of which Forster was a member) it required an Empire with a strong international presence, to protect their artistic sensibilities. George Orwell likewise, although a little later, said that “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” This sort of empirical rhetoric is not lost on contemporary politicians either, who claim that in order to preserve democracy and personal freedom a degree of  autocracy is necessary: political jargon which insinuates that the innate rights to free thought and intellectual liberty  only exist thanks to the existence of an authoritarian body . The Bloomsbury group protected by those “rough men” didn’t agree and instead declared the tenets of their collective as anti-militaristic, anti-clerical and the Empire as anathema. Contrarily they celebrated the values of the aesthetic, friendship and personal pleasure. Forster himself verified these conclusions in a personal statement when he wrote, “should I have to choose between betraying my country or betraying my friends I hope that I should have the courage to betray my country.”  Although derogatory towards what Kipling declared as the “Chosen Race” – the Anglo Saxon – the attitudes of Forster and the other members of the collective was also a modernist one. The Bloomsbury’s saw Kipling “as a stalwart of the establishment [who used]… his aesthetic to communicate the mystical truths of an authoritarian political system.”(Lackey. 3) However, Forster outlines his own attitude to nineteenth century colonial influence and his disillusionment with the manufactured belief in the superiority of race and the inappropriate colonialist morality of Britain. The novel Passage to India embodies “the modernist shift away from authoritarianism and the rejection of other.”(Lackey. 13)

            “A Passage to India is the quintessential novel of modernism in its exaggeration of other;” (Lackey.12) the revelation that a brown skin and a warmer climate do not conclude social inferiority or the right of another culture to usurp and use the other for its own benefit as a matter of preordination.  The essence of the story “stages …“an attack on difference,” which makes it “that archetypal novel of modernity” (Moffat. 109). The authoritarianism of British empiricists was vested uneasily in the premise that the English were superior and that theirs was the white man’s burden with the divine obligation to elevate the other races. Given the dwindling prominence of the British Empire during the early part of the twentieth century when Forster wrote his novel, the prevailing attitude towards the colonies was one of racial segregation and moral superiority. This was hardly surprising given that the archaic class system of the British had been embraced with the recognition of the medieval estates of being and their associated feudalistic form of governance. What was known as class distinction in Britain had simply morphed into color segregation in India.

            “Forster’s primary achievement in the novel is the articulation of “an experience of alienation expressed in the impossibility of reconciliation”(Moffat. 112) This is a modernist trope that until the appearance of his novel had rarely been read and those subjected to colonialism had lacked a sympathetic voice. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Europeans on company business in Africa exploit both the indigenous population and the natural resources for corporate gain. Although we bear witness throughout the novel to the hostility and rank exploitation of the natives, there is an expectation of acquiescence by the protagonists given their myopic color-coded barbarism. The Africans are never given a voice and are simply faceless shadows that impede the progress of industrialization and hinder the rescue of the mysterious Kurtz by the novels central character Marlow. The brutalization that takes place between the colonizers and the Africans is matter of fact and is merely the accepted cost of doing business. The novels misdirected ending, with a guilt ridden colonizer returning the letters of his dead colleague to his fiancée, puts emphasis on the value of racial purity. Kurtz despite his own brutality is mourned by the book and never a second thought is given to those natives who suffered defending what was rightfully theirs. The conflict in the story is between Marlow and his employer and is never one of conscience, whilst the only humanist quality, yet another modernist identifier, is when Marlow switches his allegiance from the company to his fellow European Kurtz. Forster’s novel delves deeper than this and we are allowed to look in the segregated world of Empirical India and witness the duality of attitudes of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Although there is an obvious notion of cognitive dissonance on the part of both parties with regard to Anglo-Indian political class and caste, Forster has the esthetic sensibility to create real people with human emotions, rather than stock, colonial characters. Forster, unlike Conrad’s stereo-typical imagery of the African, gives India an identity, not just a geographical location.

            Forster’s Indians show emotion, human weakness, ambition, lust and even fear. The figure of Doctor Aziz embodies all of these attributions and rather than a two dimensional tin-cut figure, he is a very real person. Typically the oppressed colonial was stereotyped by color and accent with perhaps a flourish of raw emotion towards his colonial master. One is reminded of the novels of Rider Haggard and Jules Verne and their descriptions of the faithful man servant, or rather the human sacrifice that dies willingly to preserve the pre-conceived notion of British purity. Rather than the preservation of flesh it is the admiration for it that is constantly on the doctor’s mind and his futile pursuit of female relationships with local women and admiration for his white superiors. Aziz we know is a widower, a man who doted on a wife who died in childbirth whilst bearing him a son. Forster’s description of Aziz’s loss lends the character an empathy that evokes reader sympathy when the doctor eulogizes his dead wife, “A piece of brown cardboard and three children – that was all that was left of his wife. It was unbearable, “How unhappy I am…never shall I get over this.”(58) Instantly Forster changes Aziz from a character to that of a fully fleshed human being; an identifier that the Indian is no longer a shadow, but an entity made new according to the axiom of modernism expressed by the modernist Ezra Pound. The native is transformed and the reader can never again see him simply as a phantom. Forster is careful not to paint his character as a plaster saint and we soon learn that without his wife he has sought occasional solace with the whores in Delhi.  This discovery of the “man” is not the readers alone, but is also that of Mrs. Moore; an English woman who has come to India to visit her son, whom Aziz meets serendipitously at a mosque. Mrs. Moore surprised by the meeting converses with him in a way to which he is clearly unaccustomed. “I think you are newly arrived in India,” says Aziz, “…by the way you address me.”(19) Clearly Aziz finds it unusual to be spoken to by a white skinned woman as though he was an equal. Forster is attempting to break down the barriers of multiculturalism by engendering conversation between two supposedly inequitable races. The affinity for Aziz by Mrs. Moore is obvious and later Forster speaks through her as she addresses her extremely prejudicial son. “India is part of earth… and God has put us on earth in order to be pleasant to each other…to love our neighbors and to show it…he is omnipresent even here in India.”(53) The promotion of human relationships and the value of friendship are ripped straight from the Bloomsbury manifesto where the assumption of other is anathema to the collective.  Rather than one of Conrad’s savages Aziz is an educated, linguistically capable human being and barring his cultural difference would not have been out of place at the Chandrapore Club with the other professionals. Modernism reveals the human being and dismisses the pre conceived notion of cultural disparity.

            The interaction with Mrs. Moore at the ruined temple acknowledges a human side to India that 19th century Britain was unfamiliar with. The irony is that the disparagement of modernism for realism is erroneous, as through the advent of stylistic change a much more honest picture of the world is painted. Forster’s novel adds legitimacy to characterization and one could argue that instead of breaking with realist tradition he was in fact improving the genre.

            Outside of the club where the British meet to drink, where Mrs. Moore is embarrassed by the fact Aziz is not allowed to enter, exists a generic landscape that contains a single stereotype. The Aryan brothers are discernable by their dress and mannerisms and not by their individual personalities and exist purely for the viewing pleasure, in their various categories as though they were animals in a zoo, of the newly arrived ladies. The real India it would seem is available but by invitation only. Mrs. Turton reminds Mrs.  Moore that she is, “… superior to them in every way” and, “not to forget it!” (42) This is the essence of other that Forester wants to expose, that empire does nothing to distinguish humanity but rather strips it of all value by turning the Indians into a designated population. The only “worthwhile” community that is given any attention by Forster is that of the administrators; not that of the locals who simply survive on its fringes. Even so Forster’s view of their community is not idealized and we learn how stiff and regimented their lives are within its endemic hierarchy. The administrators eke out their hum-drum existence waiting for pensions and promotions and acting in ways they accuse the Indians of, when taking bribes and aggrandizing  themselves. In effect the empire begins and ends at the doors of the Sahibs. Forster doesn’t portray a Utopian view of British Indian but tells it how it is. A hot, sweaty, sycophantic existence where Britains thrive only by following strict rules and where the Indians, despite their supposed colonization, have more freedom than their European masters. He destroys the myth of the Raj and simply equates it to a pseudo England basking in forty degrees Celsius with only a modicum of tolerated power. The Indians recognized this and Forster enlightens us with what our contemporary culture ineptly terms reverse racism. Aziz and his friends discuss whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman, use racial slurs to deprecate their white skins and revel in the fact that they are misunderstood. “All Englishman,” says Aziz, “are exactly the same, and all English women are haughty and venal.”(27) Paradoxically the Indians are suddenly a reflection of the British themselves and so the misconception of racial segregation is obliterated as Forster weighs both cultures and find them equally wanting. Once again there is an explication that no other exists as attitudes are pervasive and human hypocrisy extends beyond the boundaries of both language and international demarcation. Through the dialectic of the over determination principle both societies are created by contradictions and so exist in relationship to one another in a cultural imbalance of cause and effect.

            In spite of the contemporary, colonial attitudes foisted upon her, Mrs. Moore wishes to explore the unfamiliar; she wishes to discover the true India. Upon leaving the club and entering the decrepit mosque, alone and unescorted, Forster describes that just as Aziz is awed by the site of the river and the brightness of the night sky, so is she. The unfamiliar is once again personified as other and gives reverence once again to Pounds adage of making it new; of walking away from the staid predictability of 19th century realism into the modernist world of the early twentieth century. Perhaps Forster casts Mrs. Moore as the epitome of modernism as she strives to learn more of the unexplored and dares to go beyond the unthinkable. Taking off her shoes she treads fresh footsteps into the dust of the ancient masonry and in doing so denounces the validity of preceding literature and aesthetic traditions; a rejection of the romantic and of Victorian realism. Mrs. Moore is in a space she shouldn’t occupy, in a country she should be in, with a man she shouldn’t be with. There is no sense of the colonizer or the colonized and they converse on terms which exist outside of the moment. This meeting, not unlike the strange unexplained occurrences at the Marabar caves later in the novel is an example of parataxis; a moment which disrupts and fragments conventional sequencing. Rather than the metaphysical it is the social order which is distorted into the unheimlich: the juxtaposition according to Freud between the familiar and the unfamiliar: East meets West and the universe does not come to a crashing end. The fact that a friendship is kindled between the two is implicit criticism of the colonialist attitude towards the Indians that views them as subhuman. “To understand India is to understand the rationale of the whole of creation; but the characters do not understand it, and Forster’s plot makes us ask…whether human faculties are capable of such an understanding at all.” (Christensen. 144) 

            Doctor Aziz is a living representation of India and is a mix of emotions that represents the diversity of the vast land mass that constitutes the continent. A learned man and yet he is subject to flights of emotion, irrationality and childlike naivety. Forster frequently alludes to the real India and yet given that the doctor is an Indian, one would find oneself hard pressed to discover exactly what that is. Instead of an explication of the continent Forster is perhaps suggesting that India and its citizens can’t be tarred with the same brush and that rather than a shade on a map, India is a vibrant country filled with diverse humanity. Once again Forster juxtaposes Conrad’s notion of none human entities when we read in the Heart of Darkness how, “Two more bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees… his brother phantom rested its forehead… [whilst] all about others were scattered in every pose… as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.” (127) Conrad dehumanizes those of whom he writes and the men of mud, hidden in the bushes, are simply hues of the jungle which camouflages them. Forster on the other hands paints his characters in vibrant colors and allows them to walk out of the shadow of empire and into their own legitimate space. “Great as the problem of India is, Forster’s book is not about India alone; it is about all of human life” (Christensen.161)

            From the very beginning of the novel we are bombarded with comings and goings of marriages and potential marriages and all the other ephemera of quotidian life. Aziz and his comrades sit at home smoking, eating and playing cards whilst discussing their day. It is the minutia of life  to which Forster eludes; the blandness of the food, the too tightly packed tobacco the impromptu leaving and returning of dinner guests, the arrival of a messenger and the perception of the British from the Indian perspective. Forster is attempting to dismiss the differences between the two by juxtaposing the Indian meal as though they were an ordinary British household. “We are drawn into the Moslem culture of Chandrapore, and despite its characteristic details, it seems no more exotic or alien than, say, the situations of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice.” (Christensen.156) Forster holds up a mirror and in it we see ourselves. The modernist trope of dismissing other and recognizing similarities rather than differences in an attempt at unification is the underlying message of the novel. Congruent with Bloomsbury modernist ideology Forster espouses the benefits of friendship and dismisses the cultural constructs of nationhood and geographical boundaries.




Christensen, Timothy. Bearing the White Man’s Burden and Cultural Differences in E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India. Duke University Press. A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 2, Postcolonial Disjunctions (Spring, 2006), pp. 155-178. Print.


Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York, Brace and Co. 1952. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. NY, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1988. Print.

Lackey, Michael. E.M.Forster’s Lecture “Kipling’s Poems.” Negotiating the modernist shift. Indiana University Press. Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 30, No 3 (Spring 2007) pp.1-11. Print.


 Moffat, Wendy. A Passage to India and the Limits of Certainty. The Journal of Narrative Techniques, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Fall, 1990), pp. 331-341. Print


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