Friday, June 28, 2013

Better Late Than Never: A Review of A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Only 38 years after receiving the assignment, I've completed it. I’ve now read A Passage to India

I received the assignment to read the novel for my Modern Fiction course taught by David (“First Blood”) Morrell. The book was near the top of the reading list, and in a semester that began with a mistake (I misread my transcript), I had to read more works than I had time for. In the words of the Panda, I “had to be strategic”. Fortunately, Professor Morrell told us about the echo, the Freytag triangle, and how this novel helped create the transition to modern fiction. Anyway, it was enough to do well in the course. Within the last year, of course, this omission began to haunt me. Shouldn’t I now read this classic? Well, I again procrastinated. I’d seen the movie years ago (and remember virtually nothing about it), but mostly I wanted to focus on reading about other aspects of India, both longer ago (Moguls and rajas) and the recent past and contemporary India. Thus, until recently, I’ve avoided reading about the British Raj. Now, however, perhaps for the mere fact that Indian Summer had been looking at me for so long (my books look at me longingly and pleadingly when I don’t pay attention to them), I decided to read Forster's classic. Then, when I saw a good edition of A Passage to India (Penguin, with an introduction by Pankaj Mishra), I bought it  and moved it toward the top of the pile. 

And so how was it? Outstanding. 

Forster’s novel creates complex and sometimes puzzling characters set in a society and landscape that he evokes with beautiful and insightful prose. The central characters, the Moslem physician Dr. Aziz and the British schoolteacher, Cyril Fielding, struggle and fight for every moment of friendship that can break through barriers of culture and personal insecurities. Indeed, the central incidents occur early in the novel. These events concern a visit to the Marabar caves and whatever happened (or didn’t happen) to Ms. Quested there, the subsequent trial, and its effects. These events take up the first two-thirds of the book, but the story continues beyond that attempting to appreciate the individuals and circumstances from which the problems all arose. 

Forster is hard upon the administrators of the British Raj. If anyone thinks that Forster is a cheerleader for the Raj, that person is sorely mistaken. Forster, who visited India on two different occasions (and who perhaps had an Indian lover) displays the vile racism that had developed among many of the Brits. Fielding is an exception, and yet even he must deal with ambiguities and misunderstandings that could frustrate even the most sympathetic of souls. The characters of Adela Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Professor Godbole each have complex if lesser roles that create a true richness in the story.

Finally, I should remark on how Forster uses the landscape to help set the tone of the story. Writing as I am now from central India and having lived here the last 10 months, I know how heat, dust, random mountains, ravines and (often dry) watercourses mark the landscape and impress themselves on those who, like me, come from such different circumstances. Forster’s language, which creates wonderful conversations, takes a poetic turn when describing some of these landscapes and the attendant weather.  

So now, 38 years after I received the assignment, I can mark it complete. I get no credit for that now—other than the enjoyment and perspective that I received from reading a great novel about this complex land. This is now the credit I most want.

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