28 February 2009

Past Perfect: A Passage To India

From Darkness to Light

Author: E M Forster
Published In: 1924



Many critics believe that without A Passage To India, E M Forster wouldn't have perhaps been the author of eminence he is today. This novel, based in India during the British rule, is easily one of the most definitive works that documents the period and offers more than a glympse into the prevailing colonial attitudes.
Not that Howards End and A Room With A View do not contain merits but A Passage To India - by having a dark. impenetrable core (the caves) - right in the middle of the book --- breaks away from Forster's otherwise Edwardian conventionality and takes on modernist hues. It's a mature breakaway for the author and what we have here is a mytho poetic novel that unravels a wealth of meaning.

My first interest in E M Forster's works came while watching A Room With A View,  Ismail Merchant's  brilliant literary adaptation of Forster's novel. Later when I read the book, I found it quite disengaging. I felt the film was far more entertaining.  Being always interested in Raj literature, I took up The Passage To India, considered by most as the definitive book on British India . I savoured the book - loving how Forster creates the mood and setting. A certain mysticism pervades the novel, as each character battles with their two worlds - internal and external. The incident of the Caves is the culmination point where things come to a head.

When Adela Quested and her would-be-mother-in-law Mrs Moore arrive to India, they express their wish to see 'the real India'. Compared to the snobbery around - among the British class about the natives (Indians) - Adela and Mrs Moore seem much more open and courteous towards their Indian acquaintances. Dr Aziz, one of the major characters in the novel appears in many ways an embodiment of Forster's impression of India --- a kind of 'muddle' yet affectionate and emotional. His judgments are not always based on facts, as he tends to follow his heart too much. He overreacts and his feelings swing in extremes - from childlike joy to undiluted anger and hate.

The other character, Mr Feilding is portrayed as the rationalist - a friend to both Aziz and the two women. All four of them are happy with each others acquaintance and it's one of these days that Aziz proposes a trip to the Marabar caves. When they agree, Aziz makes a lot of preparations for the journey. But things turn disastrous. When Mrs Moore comes out of the Cave, she feels dizzy and disturbed. But Adela's reaction is extreme. She comes out shouting and later accuses Dr Aziz of sexually molesting her. The Britishers stand by Adela, using the opportunity to tighten the screw on the natives.

However, as days progress, Adela isn't sure anymore whether she was really molested or whether she just imagined it. Mrs Moore is convinced that it was all in Adela’s mind. Dr Aziz is let off by the court to loud cheers by fellow Indians. The British community feels humiliated and targets Adela for 'changing her mind'
The third act, mostly constitutes the central characters drifting away and then crossing each other's paths after many years. This part does not flow seamlessly with the rest of the story but if seen like an epilogue, it works in portraying how the British-Indian equation was writ with misunderstanding, mistrust and miscommunication.

So, what exactly happened in the caves? Forster never tells you and even when he was asked about it in interviews, he only said, "I don't know!"
But the author's rich setting and characters do reveal a lot, in terms of what could have possibly happened. One of the central clues is Mrs Moore's character, who is going through a period of disenchantment with humanity itself. She has intuitive powers and feels a certain spiritual decay that disturbs her. She possibly expected to find peace in the caves but instead is horrified at the feeling of 'nothingness' it suggests. Adela, on the other hand, only has a certain superficial rationality to her and her sexual feelings are also repressed (in Jungian terms, her animus is more pronounced), which is why the caves probably brought her at the end of her conscious state -ie towards the unconscious (mind you, the cave can also be viewed as a primal womb - a darkness before existence as much as nothingness after existence) and that makes her unstable.
In general, two of these characters, in particular move in an out of their consciousness and unconsciousness.
Adela's fear could have also emerged out her distrust for Aziz and all Indians, a feeling which may not seem obvious on the surface.
So essentially, Forster starts off by creating a rich period drama about British India and the relationships that crumble under the weight of their cultural phobia.

For this and more reasons, A Passage To India is an illuminating read and opens up a treasure of meanings.

7 comments:

Qalandar said...

Superb piece here sandy... personally Passage to India is not a book I "like", but its importance, especially in the era of post-colonial writing/literature, etc., cannot be denied. Also thought the film was really poor relative to the book (have you seen it?). The last section of the book left me cold though, I could have done without it...

sandy said...

Hey thanks Q!

I got the same feeling about the third act -so to say - which I certainly think didn't flow seamlessly into the narrative. It seemed like a different book altogether.

But otherwise, I do consider Passage To India a rather rich work overall.

sandy said...

Haven't seen the David Lean film though.

ideaunique said...

hey Sandy! you are a book-worm :-) i just want you to read Sri Aurobindo's epic poem SAVITRI - if you can.....

sandy said...

Hey Idea, good to see you here on a book blog! I will try to look up the book you've mentioned. Thanks.

Abhishek Bandekar said...

Wonderful review Sandhya, although I personally missed a 'personal' touch. This is a far more academic(in a positive way) review than your others but also a tad detached. I still continue to be amazed, awed & envious of your skills in precision.

About the book, I believe Forster's greatest achievement in 'Passage' is in beginning the book looking from the 'outside in' and ending it looking from the 'inside out'. What he does basically is take a Western 'exotic' gaze and subvert it by substitution of a 'rooted' colonial introspection.

sandy said...

Abzee: Yeah, i think the personal touch went missing because I ended up doing a lot of academic reading on Passage To India, so I guess somewhere I just decided to concur with some of the views I agreed with or 'experienced' while reading the novel.