The Logical vs. the Abstract.
The cultures and characters are stereotypical, but the false dichotomy does allow for things to be explored.
Click here for TIME Magazine’s list.
Funny how time affects views. Originally, people didn’t like this book because it showcased inappropriate relationships between conquerer and colonized. Forester made India too knowable and too relatable. Now, those “relatable” details are viewed with scorn as every -ism gets piled on this book: sexism, racism, imperialism. Somehow the firebrand that was disliked for showing the humanity of India is now denigrated because he didn’t show the humanity of India. You just can’t win.
Yes, the book has the air of a western, ego-centric flair from a writer in imperialistic 1920s. There is a silly division of labor: the British are always logical to a fault while the Indians are willy-nilly mystical. However, there is some insight to how this view still lives with us today, and how as a westerner myself I yearn for the mystical viewpoint Forster puts in the mouth of his Indian characters.
[STORY WITH SPOILERS]
The story centers on four characters: Ms. Quested (young and British), Ms. Moore (old and British), Dr. Aziz (young and Indian), and Mr. Fielding (young and British). The four become friends of sorts even with all the bigotry, power-dynamics, and fear between the intersectional identities. The four decide to go on an outing to a local cave. They all become separated, and in the ensuing chaos, Ms. Quested believes Dr. Aziz attempted to sexual assault her. This brings the town to a feverish boil as the rest of the novel deals with how the erroneous accusation plays out.
While there are many themes, the one that hit me the most was this battle between logic and abstraction. Forrester uses the British characters to show how inept they are at being logical and the limitations of such a worldview.
Does Not Compute.
The British pride themselves on being well-grounded, objective, and methodical in this novel. In line with an imperialistic world-view, here they are to bring order and science to the savage Indians. However, their seemingly logical outlook is a complete mess.
In one of my favorite moments of the book, Dr. Aziz has given a collar stud to Mr. Fielding as a sign of friendship. Later, the city magistrate Ronny sees how improperly dressed he is, saying:
“He was dressed in his Sunday best, and his back collar stud was out. And there you have the Indian all over.”
How irritating: what should be viewed as a moment of compassion due to Dr. Aziz’s gesture, Ronny uses it as a moment to reinforce negative beliefs about India as a whole. They just can’t get it write no matter how much they try. It oozes with contempt.
And it’s wrong. Logically wrong.
This theme pops up again and again: it is impossible to be rational. No matter how hard the British label, categorize, and hierarchy, they improperly assign experiences and events. The biggest mistake of all is Ms. Quested’s interpretation of the events in the cave. While having a jarring, mystical event, she instead tries to post-rationalize it to a devious deed by Dr. Azid.
Our objective reality is only as good as our input which aren’t good.
The Power of Mysticism and Intuition.
The most beautiful moments come for the Indian characters or the British who shed their objective facade to experience all of that life has to offer. This is summed up with Dr. Aziz saying:
Aziz winked at him slowly and said: “…There are many ways of being a man; mine is to express what is deepest in my heart.”
These thoughts within us don’t have to be logical or objective. Rather, they are the most subjective experiences while conversely our most powerful. Ms. Moore experiences this when she is in the Mosque:
“In England the moon had seemed dead and alien; here she was caught in the shawl of night together with earth and all other stars. A sudden sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies, passed into the old woman and out, like water through a tank, leaving a strange freshness behind.
We’ve all had experiences like this: wondrous moments where our spirits become connected with everything and a calmness unlike any arrives. The fact that Ms. Moore experiences it in India rather than England is telling of the cultural difference: India accepts these unexplainable and irrational moments without critical inquiry.
We Are Irrational Creatures.
The summation of our experiences does not add up to a logically consistent equation. There are times that no matter how much we want something, know it is good for us, and is available for us to pursue, we don’t. At the end of the book, with Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding having been through the splintering effects of the trial for supposed sexual assault, Mr. Fielding wants to be Dr. Aziz’s friend again. However, a narration from the universe opens up and responds:
“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, 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 temple, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they emerged 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.”
There are just some things that our spirit will not allow, no matter how much sense it makes. We must accept that we are irrational. To do so is to life life fully on both sides of the coin.
Maybe this book isn’t just a list of -isms and has some good truths.
Other People’s Takes:
- Star Gazer Puj’s Reviews: “Anyone with an interest in Indian history or a study of cultures will find it a brilliant read. I also highly recommend the audiobook and the narrator Sam Dastor.”
- A Bookish Type: “E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India, is a bitingly caustic look at race relations in British India.”
- My Year(s) of Reading Voraciously: “There is muddle and mystique offered by the Indian landscape, and Forster warns us against our complacency.”