Central to E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” is the uneasy relationship between the English and the Indians – which, in fact, is alluded to from the get-go, with a discussion on whether it is possible for an Englishmen and an Indian to be friends – and therefore the interactions between the characters signal broader tensions in colonial India. And anger towards the British is inevitable. The words and deeds, for instance, of civil surgeon Major Callendar, city magistrate Ronny Heaslop, collector of Chandrapore Mr. Turton, and Chandrapore police superintendent Mr. McBryde result in cruel injustices and unfair judgements of the locals, keenly aware of their oppression.
The plot moves speedily (I thought the climaxes, in particular, came and gone), though the emphasis of the novel remains squarely on character dynamics, in the fallout of the climaxes. Conversations reveal much, yet what is left unsaid not only reveals much about a person’s true character – or even the extent to which he or she may be uncertain about his or her own motivations – but also leads to misinterpretations and construed messages and unresolved misunderstandings, especially towards the end. In this vein, I thought the conclusion was a little rushed and abrupt, and that protagonist Dr. Aziz, headmaster Cyril Fielding, and schoolmistress Adela Quested should have had more time to “clear the air”. This, however, could have been deliberate, given the background of continued suspicion and hostility in India.
Still, “A Passage to India” is a sobering and wonderful read. The aforementioned big themes – of discrimination, injustice, and colonialism – and character development are critical, though Forster also used little neat references to either underscore bigger points, or to draw connections between people, places, and events: The British solider who played polo with Dr. Aziz, later recalling the incident; the metaphor of “the echo” from the Marabar Caves, which Fielding mentioned at the end of the second of three parts; the wasp; as well as Dr. Aziz’s notion of “the Oriental”, of knowing when a stranger is a friend. All things considered, these are timeless reminders of our potential for cruelty, lest we take our progress (and the need for even more) for granted.