This is the second or third time I’ve read A Passage to India. I read it once in graduate school for a class on British colonial fiction. Wonderful class by the way. I’m pretty sure that was my second time; I’m nearly certain that I read it back in the 1980’s when the Merchant/Ivory film version came out. Merchant/Ivory films were famous for employing lots of old school British actors and the use of gratuitous scenery.
I liked the book all three times.
Set in 1920’s Chandrapore, the book is about Adela Quested and her soon to be mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore, who travel to India where Adela is supposed to marry Ronny, Mrs. Moore’s son from her second marriage. The two women soon become regular company for Dr. Aziz, a young widower, and his English friend Cecil Fielding. On what was supposed to be an entertaining picnic to the nearby Marabar Caves, Adela has something of a panic attack. Afterwards, Dr. Aziz is accused of accosting her while inside the caves and the local community is torn apart in during the investigation and trial that follows.
The first four fifths of the novel make for excellent reading, though the first section is something of a slow burn. I thought the final 80 pages or so, the post trial section, dragged quite a bit this time around, too. But I enjoyed reading A Passage to India for the second or third time and did stay up way past my betimes, until after one in the morning on a school night, reading the investigation/trial section because I had forgotten how it all turned out and simply had to know.
What struck me this time through the book was just how much of it is about the difficulty of making a connection across certain social lines. I think this is E.M. Forster’s over-riding theme–it’s certainly a major theme in Howard’s End and in Maurice. I think it’s also an important theme in A Room with a View but I can’t recall much about that one.
In A Passage to India the social line is a racial one. The English in India do not socialize with the Indians. Ex-pats generally keep to themselves according to C.J. who spent his high school years as an ex-pat in Franco’s Spain. Forster’s Dr. Aziz tries to make a connection across the racial lines because he is taken by Mrs. Moore. Mrs. Moore genuinely likes the much younger doctor and has a real respect for his culture and his religion, Islam, but she is really still a tourist in India, a better class of tourist maybe, but still a tourist. Adela says she wants to see the “real India” but Aziz knows she means scenery not people when she says this.
The two characters most likely to bond across social lines, Dr. Aziz and Cecil Fielding, make a gallant attempt, both want to succeed, but even they are not able to break free of the societal norms that rule India in the 1920’s.
A Passage to India was selected for my old book club. The club still meets monthly; I attend once or twice a year as a sort of member emeritus. In general, the club members thought it was a good book, not a great book. Most members read it to the end, a majority liked it but no one loved it.
While reading A Passage to India this time around, except for that trial scene in the middle, I kept thinking of that Katherine Mansfield line about Forster:
E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the tea pot… Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.
She was right. A Passage to India is a beautifully warm book. But not quite tea.