One of the advantages of aging is that the brain finally matures enough to understand and appreciate things that eluded us when we were young. Of course, it’s a short period between maturity and senility, but if we make the most of it, we can discover—or rediscover—a world of infinite riches.
I tried to read A Passage to India, when I was in high school, sometime between fourteen and eighteen, but with my hormones running amok and unable to think of anything except Cindy Sheldon or Susan Crampton, I thought it a remarkably dull book about a bunch of remarkably dull deadheads. Half a century later, I read it (as I do all books where the English language is used the way Rembrandt used pigment) slowly, relishing the sheer craftsmanship of it, and with the themes resonating in my head.
Ah. Themes. True to today’s complete absence of empathy (OED: the power of projecting one’s personality into—and so fully comprehending—the object of contemplation) from the same people who condemn Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for racist stereotypes, a lot of people seem to think A Passage to India should have been written with today’s sensibilities and priorities. It wasn’t. It was published in 1924. Get over it. This is considered—by whoever makes out such lists—one of the one-hundred greatest novels of the twentieth century; personally, I would put practically anything Forster ever wrote on that list, in particular, A Room with a View, but A Passage to India both takes and deserves careful reading. Those people who condemn the novel for its use of the “n” word, or because it depicts the ugliness of racism, should understand that back when it was published, it was condemned precisely for depicting the ugliness of racism, of colonial attitudes, and most importantly for its positive depiction of interracial friendship, which was considered a no-no in that place and that time. All of which goes to prove that any fool can criticize anything for any reason.
What is stunning, for those of us who know our history, is the extent to which E. M. Forster sensed the still unseen (by the British) and unacknowledged (by the British) rifts in the Raj. There had been independence movements and attempts to throw off the British yoke for as long as the East India Company had been in India. The appalling Amristar massacre (graphically portrayed in the movie Gandhi) took place only a few years earlier and was largely whitewashed, in some cases even approved, by the British. But for the most part, the 1920s were a time of British complacency (which is largely what allowed them to whitewash the murder of a thousand or more unarmed Sikh and Hindu Indians peacefully celebrating a religious festival). It’s true, Gandhi had started his non-violent protests, but unless I’ve missed the mark badly, he was still not being taken seriously by the British government, which seemed to be bogged down by a combination of complacency and recovery from the devasting losses and upheavals of World War One. Both of those would soon be augmented by an awareness of the evil that was taking root in Germany and Japan, but during the twenties, when Forster was in India, very few people anticipated even the possibility of the breakup of the British Empire, let alone the loss of the jewel in the crown. Evidently, Forster did, at least on some level.
The plot that drives the action revolves around the purported sexual assault of an English lady by a respected Moslem Indian doctor. The lady eventually recants her testimony (it’s always unclear what, if anything, happened, but it appears to have been merely an hallucination) and the doctor is cleared, but it is the reactions of the British, and the ramifications of the accusation, that Forster uses to create an allegory of the presence of Great Britain in a country with a history far more ancient, and a culture just as rich and vibrant.
The subsidiary themes of male dominance and class distinctions run through the book as a sort of echo to the primary theme of irreconcilable differences between white Englishmen and… And whom? That’s one of the dilemmas of India even to this day, if modern novels by Indian authors are any indication. There is no single entity that can be designated “Indian,” and prior to their independence, there were even more differences: Hindu and Moslem, with hints of the violence to come; a dizzying array of multiple caste divisions that were religious as well as social; racial differences; geographical differences; political differences; economic differences, educational differences… It was, and apparently still is, a greatly divided country, and the British Raj, imbued with the conviction of its own superiority—racial, cultural, intellectual, moral—looked down on all Indians impartially:
Mr. McBryde paused. He wanted to keep the proceedings as clean as possible, but Oriental Pathology, his favorite theme, lay around him, and he could not resist it. Taking off his spectacles, as was his habit before enunciating a general truth, he looked at them sadly, and remarked that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa—not a matter for bitterness this, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact that any scientific observer will confirm.
There are other statements later on, far uglier in both tone and conviction, that reveal the anger that comes with fear, and the contempt that came with no justification other than lack of empathy.
This is not the lighthearted E. M. Forster who wrote A Room with a View. Written fourteen years later, A Passage to India is both more serious in its subject matter and far sadder in its conclusions, ending with the conviction that certain differences, certain gulfs, are not—or at least were not at that time—able to be bridged, be it white and “Oriental” (“colored” is used sometimes, sometimes an uglier word), West and East, Christian and Moslem (or Christian and Hindu, or Moslem and Sikh, or Hindu and Moslem, or any other combination of faiths), upper class and middleclass, perhaps even male and female. The book ends with the one Englishman who truly saw the Indians as his equals, riding in the northern hill country with the accused doctor he saw as his friend:
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said [the Englishman] holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”
But the horses didn’t want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it; they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
And one is left wondering if ever, and where.