Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Passage to India - E.M Forster

 
Rating: 9/10

Review:

A Passage to India is on TIME Magazine's list of the 100 best English novels from 1923 to the present. It is, deservingly, an oft-recommended classic that could be mandatory reading for anyone wishing to make sense of the British Raj and the complex web of relationships and attitudes it spawned between people of different cultures and different races. 

As an enthusiast of all things history, especially related to the British Raj, I'm glad I finally got around to reading Forster's masterpiece. This classic captivated me for the simple fact that Forster is a pleasure to read and he takes on a canvas that is as confusing, myriad and breathtaking as the country it is set in. It is the reader whom Forster takes on a passage to India, the India of the British Raj, showcasing a look into the attitudes, practices and opinions of the people who lived in that time. 

The plot seems deceptively simple: Adela Quested arrives in India along with Mrs.Moore to whose son Ronny serving in India, she might most possibly decide to get married. In their quest to find the 'real India' Ms.Quested and Mrs.Moore decide they need to meet Indians who are the ones oppressed by their British rulers. They meet Dr.Aziz, who is such a complex character I still haven't decided if I like him or not, and strike an unlikely friendship that sets off a series of events that will change the lives of all the characters in this book. 

Dr.Aziz's journey in making friends with Britishers like Cyril Fielding and Mrs.Moore is a wonderful exploration of racism, the scope of a relationship between the rulers and the ruled and the tensions it is subjected to. The story of Miss Quested and Dr.Aziz's misfortunes in the Marabar caves is a wonderful device with which Forster indulges in a brilliant analysis of cultural, religious, racial identities and the impact when they clash.

Forster is at his best when he provides vignettes of the manners and attitudes of the British men who governed India, right from the frivolous, never-ending conversation about Indian weather to startling though not surprising racist comments about Indians. Indeed, if  A Passage to India is anything to go by, Indian weather was the conversation topic of choice in the British Raj. As Ronny remarks:

''There's nothing in India but the weather, my dear mother; it's the alpha and omega of the whole affair' 

Forster is eminently quotable, something that adds to my enjoyment of a book. This is one of my favourite quotes from the book:

"We're out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them's my sentiments. India isn't a drawing-room."

"Your sentiments are those of a god," [Mrs. Moore] said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

Trying to recover his temper, [Ronny] said, "India likes gods."

"And Englishmen like posing as gods."
 

Forster not only analyzes British attitudes about Indians, but also the clash of personalities between Muslims and Hindus in their India. There are intriguing conversations about the Mughal emperors, each of their contributions to the identity of Muslims in India and the identity of Indians themselves. There are stunningly descriptive, beautifully written passages about the fun and frolic of festivals like Gokul Ashtami (which, as Forster remarks, forms a stunning contrast to the solemn nature of many Christian festivals).

"By sacrificing good taste, this worship achieved what Christianity has shirked: the inclusion of merriment. All spirit as well as all matter must participate in salvation, and if practical jokes are banned, the circle is incomplete."

A Passage to India is clearly written by a writer, who while he may not be an impartial observer nor an encyclopedia of information about the Raj, offers an important perspective that would be foolish to ignore. This book is one I cannot wait to re-read, for there is certainly more than meets the eye of a first-time reader, even though the reader may be armed with a lengthy spoiler-filled introductory analysis. I highly recommend A Passage to India to anyone who loves classics, is interested in the British Raj or likes to understand race and religion in the context of interaction between people of different countries placed in an unequal platform.

13 comments:

bibliophiliac said...

A Passage to India is a book I've long been meaning to read-especially since I have loved the other Forster books I've read. So far Howard's End is my favorite Forster book.

JaneGS said...

I have got to read this book. I loved Forster, but the subject matter has always intimidated me.

Your review has whetted my appetite, especially since Forster peppers the history lesson with such elegant, insightful observations.

Kals said...

Bibliophiliac - This is my first Forster and I simply loved it. I'm looking forward to reading Howard's End soon. Thanks a lot for the recommendation :)

Jane - I was intimidated initially too, but Forster just draws you into the story and it's easy from there onwards :)I hope you enjoy A Passage to India as much as I did!

JoAnn said...

I really enjoyed this one too, but loved Forster's A Room With A View and Howard's End (my favorite) even more. Hope you get a chance to read those at some point.

Amrita said...

I loved the book and movie.

Would love to read it again after reading your excellent review

Kals said...

JoAnn - Thanks, I hope to read the two! I think I'll go with Howard's End first :)

Amrita - Thanks a lot :) I'm yet to watch the movie. I should get to it soon!

nishitak said...

Forster seems to specialize in travelers finding themselves having difficulty acclimatizing to foreign lands.

I read this book and loved it too...also highlights how a single event can be perceived in so many different ways by different people.

You should also try "Where Angels Fear to Tread" - another story about insular English people trying to understand an Italian point of view.

Kals said...

Yes indeed!

'also highlights how a single event can be perceived in so many different ways by different people.'
I didn't go into the details of the event because I didn't want to spoil it for people, but you're right. It is absolutely fascinating, slightly eerie and makes it sort of a psychological thriller!

Thanks a lot for the reco :) I shall check it out.

Tanu said...

I am among the few who did not like this book. We dissected the book and researched about the author for my senior paper. There were many things that I did not like about the author, which trickled down to the book.

Maybe I should give it another try. :)

Kals said...

I don't know a thing about Forster himself, maybe I should find out! That having said, I definitely recommend you give the book another try. I loved it :)

chasingbawa said...

I've seen the film but haven't read the book yet, although I've been meaning to for ages. I watched it at school and remember the film was pretty brutal and I was scandalised at the injustice of it all.

Kals said...

The story is indeed brutal and reflective of an attitude that is frankly so racist that it is appalling. I haven't seen the movie yet, but hope to get to it soon!

mel u said...

Just a few days ago I read Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread-I liked it a lot but it is not even close to the wonder that Passage to India was-I will try to do a post on it soon-I just finished it about ten minutes ago-

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