Michael McCooe – Common Era: A Passage to India

E.M Forster published his masterpiece, A Passage to India, in 1924. Set in the British Raj, it centres around four characters – Dr. Aziz, his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Adela Quested. After Adela accuses Aziz of sexual assault, the prejudices of the time are brought to light…

Meeting the players

A Passage To India starts by introducing us to its main players. There’s the young Adela, who plans to become engaged to British magistrate Ronny, who’s the son of the elderly Mrs. Moore. These women decide to travel to India together, but they want to see the country as it really is, rather than just the institutions set up by the Raj. We also meet Aziz early on, discovering that he’s a young Muslim doctor.

It turns out that Aziz feels ill-treated by the British, especially by the civil surgeon he works with, Major Callendar, who often summons Aziz for frivolous requests at inopportune times. One night, Aziz discusses whether Englishmen and Indians can really be friends with his educated pals Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali, with interesting results. Later that night, he meets Mrs. Moore and Adela at a Mosque in Chandrapore, where Aziz lives and they become fast-friends, to the young doctor’s surprise.

The final main player we’re introduced to is Cyril Fielding. Adela and Mrs. Moore meet Cyril at a party thrown by Chandrapore’s Governor, Mr. Turton, to help the women meet prominent Indians in the city. Cyril is the Principal of Chandrapore’s government college and after making Adela’s acquaintance, he becomes impressed with her open attitude towards Indians. Cyril invites Adela and Mrs. Moore to have tea with him and Godbode, a prominent Hindu Professor. Adela insists on inviting Aziz along. At Cyril’s tea party he meets Aziz and soon becomes close with the young Muslim doctor.

Accusations fly

Shortly after, Aziz arranges an expedition to the nearby Marabar Caves for the tea party group. Aziz, Adela and Mrs. Moore are forced to go alone, after Cyril and Godbode miss their train to the Marabar. The remaining group then starts exploring Marabar’s lower caves, but they’re forced to leave Mrs. Moore behind, when she becomes unnerved by the claustrophobic space. Aziz, Adela and their guide carry on to the higher caves, at which point Adela suddenly realises she doesn’t love her intended.

Adela starts showing romantic interest in Aziz. She asks him whether he is married and he storms off into a cave, finding the question offensive, only to discover that Adela has gone when he returns. Aziz walks back down to the bottom, discovering Adela’s broken field-glasses en route, to meet Cyril, who informs him that Adela has rushed back to Chandrapore. When the men return, they discover that Adela has accused Aziz of attempting to rape her in the Marabar caves and he is promptly arrested.

Aziz’ arrest ignites tensions between the Indians, who believe he’s innocent and the Englishmen, who believe he’s guilty. Cyril then enrages all of British India by siding with Aziz. Mrs. Moore doesn’t seem to care about the trial, as she is distracted by her harrowing experiences in the caves. She grows ill and angers Ronny with her lack of support for Adela, so he sends her home. Mrs. Moore realises on the return voyage that there is no one “real India” but a complex multitude of various Indias and dies.

Trials and tribulations

Then Aziz’ trial starts. Adela shockingly changes her story when questioned, saying that Aziz isn’t the one who attacked her and he is freed. Cyril then escorts Adela to the government college where he grows to respect her, for the bravery it took to proclaim Aziz innocent and stand up to her peers. Afterwards, Ronny ends the engagement and Adela goes home. Cyril follows, after Aziz lambastes him for befriending the woman who almost destroyed his life. At this point Aziz announces that he’s done with the English and decides to move to a place where he won’t have to interact with them.

We then re-join Aziz two years later in the Rajah of Mau, a Hindu region based hundreds of miles away from Chandrapore. We learn that Aziz, who now hates the English with a passion, has become the Rajah of Mau’s chief doctor and that he’s believes Cyril and Adela are now married. While walking through an old temple one day with his three children, Aziz bumps into Cyril and his brother in law – Ralph Moore. It turns out that Cyril married Mrs. Moore’s daughter Stella, not Adela Quested.

Aziz and Ralph then become friends, while the doctor renews his friendship with Cyril, after he runs into the latter’s rowboat by accident. The two then go on one last boat ride together, before Cyril is due to return to the UK. During this ride, Aziz swears to Cyril that they can be real friends again, after the British leave India. Cyril responds by arguing that they want to be friends now, so why can’t they be. As A Passage to India closes, the sky and earth appear to answer “No, not yet. . . . No, not there.”

Forster’s prophecy

E.M. Forster based A Passage to India on his own travels in the country. The British Raj was already falling apart by this time, as independence movements gained ground. In A Passage To India, Forster both sheds light on the racial tensions which were rife in the country at that time and foreshadows what’s to come. This made the book a classic post-colonial text, even if it was written before the demise of colonialism, which highlights the inherent flaws that ran through European imperialism.

You can also read a blog by Michael McCooe on Classical Music.