Modern Library Revue: #25 A Passage to India

September 16, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 4 6 min read

In “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster wrote: “I do not believe in belief. But this is an age of faith, where one is surrounded by so many militant creeds that in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own.” I can dig this, because I have been formulating a creed myself. I haven’t really worked it all out in a tract to hand out on street corners, but my view on human life is that it is a continuous exercise in accepting two often irreconcilable values. Things are good, but also bad; things are that way, and also this. This extends from the general to the specific, from the what to the how. Examples abound. People are angelic and loathsome. Religion is sublime and horrible. Coca Cola is divine nectar and chemical scourge. As I write, the atonal scratching of some young violinist floats through my window, evidence for and against a kind of order in the universe.

coverMy philosophy, not at all novel, goes well with a glass of coke and A Passage to India. In his belief manifesto, Forster went on to say that “the people I respect most behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working and loving, and are to keep open a few breathing-holes for the human spirit.” A Passage to India is a work of art by someone who understood that every facet of human life is riddled with contradiction and un-sortable muddle, and that we must carry on regardless. And, like any novel, A Passage to India has its own life outside the hands of its creator. It is in itself a demonstration of the principle that things are that way, and also this. A Passage to India is demonstrative of our very finest human instincts; it is also a problematic novel.

coverIn a novel whose plot hinges upon the existence of an unbridgeable chasm between a set of Us and Them, what I love the most is Forster’s savagery against his own team. In dispatches from inside the club, Forster lays bare the grotesque attitudes of the ruling class. Nothing is more vitriolic in its way than a fed-up colonial, and while few can approach the simmering hate of George Orwell in Burmese Days, Forster’s disdain for his compatriots, showcased in his astonishing prose, goes quite as far as Orwell’s did toward exposing the profound poverty of the white man’s burden. When Adela has made her accusation of Aziz, the English hunker down in the club:

One young mother — a brainless but most beautiful girl — sat on a low ottoman in the smoking-room with her baby in her arms; her husband was away in the district, and she dared not return to her bungalow in case the “niggers attacked.” The wife of a small railway official, she was generally snubbed; but this evening, with her abundant figure and masses of corn-gold hair, she symbolized all that is worth fighting and dying for; more permanent a symbol, perhaps, than poor Adela.

Page after page, Forster reveals the hypocrisy and general nastiness of the noble rulers, from the young and not wholly repellent transplant Heaslop, to the ossified Old Hand in the form of the Collector (“I have had twenty-five years’ experience of this country”–he paused, and ‘twenty-five years’ seemed to fill the waiting-room with their staleness and ungenerosity…”)

Here and elsewhere, Forster had it out for the Old Hand. Like most men of the world, he was protective of his traversed domains. He distinguished between real knowledge and false, those who know and those who do not, and those who know too much of the wrong thing. In his essay “Salute to the Orient,” he exhorts, “O deliver my soul from efficiency! When obstacles cease to occur in my plans, when I always get the utmost out of Orientals, it will be the surest proof that I have lost the East.” He tells us about the kind of traveler least likely to “salute the Orient” properly–a fusty old-timer with letters of introduction, who returns from his journey full of riveting anecdotes: “After an interesting conversation with the Mufti, in which Henry acted as interpreter, Lucy and I proceeded to inspect the so-called tomb of Potiphar’s wife.”

Forster is the enemy of the Old Hand, of his boring stories, his certainty, his smallness, his silly theories. Of the novel’s McBryde, District Superintendent of Police and the “most reflective and best educated of the Chandrapore officials,” Forster reveals that

…No Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climatic zones. The theory ran: “All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance–we should be like them if we settled here.” Born at Karachi, he seemed to contradict this theory, and would sometimes admit as much with a sad, quiet smile.

The thing is, to be so seasoned a connoisseur of the Old Hand, one must likewise approach a state of Old-Handedness. This gets to the heart of both my admiration and my anxieties about this novel. How can we write across culture, or think across culture, even, in a way that is fair? The cowardly answer is that we can’t. We can’t think about anyone who is not ourselves in a way that is fair. We can’t think of ourselves in a way that is fair. Fortunately, Forster was not cowardly. It would have been a shame had he been prevented from writing this extraordinary novel because he took a college course about the dangers of Othering. We miss out if we are frightened to write about the world, especially if, like Forster, much of what we write is at odds with the edifice of policy or public opinion.

Still, there is a way that speaking of difference can inject a subtle poison into the air, especially when the playing field is unequal. Forster, the man who once wrote “Only connect!” knew this–it is in a way the premise of his novel. He was, after all, President of the Cambridge Humanists. Nonetheless, we should be mindful of the times–the early twenties–and of Forster’s own status as an Old Hand; we should be conscious of the way that observations, even from subtle and sympathetic minds, acquire their own patina of ungenerosity. “Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession.” Later, “Are Indians cowards? No but they are bad starters and occasionally jib.”

In our current age, during which immeasurable ink has been spilled on the purportedly forever-and-ever “Clash of Civilizations,” with the East represented by the clamoring Muslim hordes and the West represented, presumably, by George Bush, purveyor of light, it is refreshing in a grim sort of way to read about the good old days, when Islam still enjoyed the (comparatively) vaunted position granted it in western Europe by the nineteenth century British orientalists. In Forster’s novel, Islam is the exotic yet comprehensible religion of Fielding’s friends. In A Passage to India, religious strife is a purely domestic problem. Moreover, it is the comically inscrutable Hindus who are treated most irreverently by the novelist. (Of the exasperating Professor Godbole it is written that his conversations “frequently culminated in a cow.”)

It’s curious to see the relative ease at which “clash” models are transmuted to fit their times, how quickly they become self-fulfilling prophesy. In Forster’s East v. West match, the result of which is that the well-meaning Aziz and Fielding cannot maintain a friendship, it is not humdrum religious rancor that creates a rift. In this novel, it is the old-fashioned kind of Orientalism–at once promulgated and illuminated by Forster’s sympathy–that explains the troubles in this India. In this novel, the disease is the British Raj, it is the jib Indians, it is the poison of ill will and the strain of good will, it is the earth itself that keeps the two men apart:

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 temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House…they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “no, not there.”

I like the anecdote about Gandhi on Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” I’m sure that a brief sit-down with Christopher Hitchens or even an ideological and self-possessed tween would show me to myself as a waffling liberal twit, but I like to think there is no East and West. Forster would disagree. I think we would both be right.

I feel a bit like the irrepressible Dr. Godbole who, when asked for his opinion about the charges against Aziz, responds thus:

“I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz.” He stopped and sucked in his thin cheeks. “It was performed by the guide.” He stopped again. “It was performed by you.” Now he had an air of daring and of coyness. “It was performed by me.”  He looked shyly down the sleeve of his own coat.  “And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself.  When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe.  Similarly when good occurs.”

“And similarly when suffering occurs, and so on and so forth, and everything is anything and nothing something,” [Fielding] muttered in his irritation, for he needed the solid ground.

Fielding’s aggravation notwithstanding, I think Forster built up much of his novel around Godbole’s philosophy. Things are that way, and also this; we must carry on regardless.

This novel gives me some trouble–considerable food for thought, better to say–but I love it. I love it for its perfect writing and I love it for its courage and its sympathy. In his later essay on belief, Forster describes his own vision of what he calls the “aristocracy” of humanity: “They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”

If this novel isn’t the work of just such an aristocrat, I don’t know what is.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. Dear Lydia,
    It is so good to read you again. I have missed your reviews. And today, of all days, when I have gone about wondering what ailed me, to read that “human life… is a continuous exercise in accepting two often irreconcilable values” gave me an answer. Thank you for posting your review today. I hope to read another review from you soon.

  2. Thanks so much for your kind comment, Judy. And thanks for reading, as always.

    Ed! Your pace has been breathtaking; I doubt it will take you years to get to #25!

  3. Lydia, another wonderful essay, I’d been wondering where you’ve been. I love this series.

    Yes, writing across culture may be impossible but, moving to a more intimate level, so is having access to another human being’s thoughts. Yet still we imagine, still we try. And what is the alternative? I’m all for the honorable failed attempt . . .

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.