Summary of A Passage to India

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A Passage to India book summary

Literary Classic

  • Novel
  • Modernism

What It’s About

Mission Impossible

There are few 20th-century novels that offer a more astute insight into the complex world of colonial India and the problematic relationships between rulers and the ruled than E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. His tale of attempted friendships between Indians and Brits is at times funny, at times sad – but always full of respect for and a keen understanding of the two cultures that are poles apart. It is also a tale of disappointment and pessimism as character after character abandons their attempts to bridge the gap between Orient and Occident. Considering this, you would be forgiven for thinking this novel to be a hard read and bleak beyond endurance, were it not for the fact that its author is a master craftsman of language and one of the finest writers in world literature.

Take-Aways

  • Edward M. Forster’s A Passage to India is the stand-out novel of the 20th century, exploring cultural differences between the British colonialists and the Indian people.
  • Aziz, a young Indian doctor, has good intentions to befriend British colonialists. His efforts come to an abrupt end when a British woman accuses him of sexually assaulting her.
  • Forster was careful to paint a balanced picture of his characters and the Indian and English communities.
  • British colonialism in India lasted from roughly 1858 to 1947.
  • The novel presents a bleak picture of the Anglo-Indian relationship. The plot is peppered with misunderstandings, mistakes and ambiguities.
  • Forster experienced the situation in India first-hand: In 1921, he was the private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas.
  • Forster became a celebrated writer in his early 30s. A Passage to India was his last novel, published when he was 45.
  • In 1984, the book was turned into a film featuring Sir Alec Guinness.
  • Forster was homosexual, though this wasn’t widely known; his homoerotic novel Maurice wasn’t published until after his death.
  • “Miss Quested, who always said exactly what was in her mind, announced anew that she was desirous of seeing the real India.”
 

Summary

Meeting in the Mosque

Chandrapore, India: The young Muslim doctor Dr. Aziz sits with his friend Mahmoud Ali and his uncle Hamidullah on the veranda. They smoke a water pipe as they discuss whether it’s possible for Indians and Brits to be friends. Aziz receives a message from his boss at the local hospital, Civil Surgeon Major Callendar, asking him to meet him at Callendar’s bungalow immediately. Aziz sets off on his bicycle, but a flat tire delays him. When he finally arrives, Callendar has left. Aziz sees this as a lack of respect. On his way home, he passes a mosque and enters in the hope of finding some peace and rest. In the dim light of the old building, he sees an elderly woman. Realizing that she is English and fearing that she might not be familiar with the local customs, he shouts at her to take off her shoes. He regrets his outburst instantly when he finds that Mrs. Moore had done so. They start a conversation. Aziz learns that Mrs. Moore has only just arrived in India. She is visiting her son Ronny Heaslop, who is the City Magistrate in Chandrapore. She brought with her a young British woman, Miss Quested. Miss Quested knows Ronny from England, and they are considering becoming engaged.

The Bridge Party

Both Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested are excited and curious about the new, exotic culture. To satisfy their desire to see the “real India,” Mr. Turton, the city’s Collector, arranges a bridge party for the British and the Indians. Yet the party is a flop, as the two sides refuse to interact with each other. Only Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore make an effort to engage some of the Indian women in conversation. The Indians are taken in by the women’s friendliness, as they are used to the British treating them at best with condescension – at worst with contempt.

Aziz “lay in a trance, sensuous but healthy, through which the talk of the two others did not seem particularly sad; they were discussing whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman.”

While talking with the free-spirited Mr. Fielding, the principal of the local government’s college, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore lament the arrogance of their compatriots. Fielding, who is pleased to see their open attitudes, invites them over for tea. They start talking about Aziz, and Fielding suggests inviting the young doctor as well.

Tea with Mr. Fielding

Aziz is the first to arrive for Fielding’s tea party. Though they have never met, having only ever heard of each other, Fielding and Aziz get along well immediately. When Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore join them, Aziz soon becomes the little group’s center of attention, regaling his audience with tales of medicine and India. Carried away by the relaxed mood, he spontaneously invites Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to his house. The two ladies accept his invitation. Aziz is horrified; he hadn’t expected them to take the invitation seriously, and his bungalow is in no state to host two British ladies. The old Brahman Professor Godbole arrives. While Fielding takes Mrs. Moore to explore the college, the conversation among Aziz, Miss Quested and Godbole moves to the Marabar Caves. Aziz suggests that they go and visit the caves instead of coming to his house. Ronny arrives to pick up his mother and Miss Quested. He completely ignores the two Indians, upsetting Aziz. The heretofore pleasant mood starts to deteriorate rapidly. After stilted good-byes, Ronny and the ladies leave.

An Engagement, but with Obstacles

In the car, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore reproach Ronny for his behavior. They accuse him of snobbery; he bemoans their naïveté. Ronny drops off his mother, and he and Miss Quested continue to a polo game. Once they’re alone, Miss Quested tells him that she doesn’t want to marry him. Ronny is hurt but tries not to show it. They continue their awkward conversation until the Nawab Bahadur, a wealthy local dignitary, arrives. Feeling benevolent and hospitable, he offers to take Ronnie and Miss Quested for a drive in his new car. Seated together in the back seat of the car, Ronny and Miss Quested come closer again, and their hands touch as if by accident. Suddenly there is a crash: An animal had run into the road, causing the driver to swerve and hit a tree. No one is hurt, but the car needs repair. Fortunately, Miss Derek, a British woman, happens to drive past, and she gives Ronny, Miss Quested and the Nawab Bahadur a lift back to town. Neither Ronny nor Miss Quested warm to the carefree, slightly cynical Miss Derek, and their joint dislike seals their union. Safely back in Chandrapore, Miss Quested and Ronny agree to marry after all.

The Marabar Caves

One evening at the club, Miss Quested casually mentions to Miss Derek that she wanted to see the Marabar Caves, but Dr. Aziz seemed to have forgotten about the expedition. A servant overhears her remark and, eventually, Aziz learns that he has greatly insulted the British women who are awaiting his invitation. He promptly arranges everything, with great trouble to make it successful. On the day, none of the parties are particularly enthusiastic to go, but still they begin their trip. The Indian tendency toward chaos worries Aziz, and his concerns prove justified: When the two ladies arrive at Chandrapore station on time, there is no sign of Fielding and Professor Godbole, but the men appear as the train pulls out of the station. With difficulty, Mrs. Moore calms the distraught Aziz, who feels the trip is already a failure.

“Miss Quested, who always said exactly what was in her mind, announced anew that she was desirous of seeing the real India.”

After a short ride, the train reaches the hills of Marabar. Aziz and the women disembark, and a great, painted elephant greets them. Aziz had used all his connections to obtain the animal for the morning. The women and Aziz mount the elephant and make their way to the first cave, with an entourage of servants and curious villagers following behind. Miss Quested and Miss Moore find themselves disappointed with the place. There is nothing special about it, and Aziz has nothing interesting to say about it. When the group stops for light refreshments, their conversation become more personal and everyone relaxes. Miss Quested asks Aziz for advice: She wants to know how she can avoid succumbing to the snobbishness found in many Anglo-Indian women. Her honesty and generosity of spirit touch Aziz. He assures her that she is of a different character and would surely never behave so unkindly.

“‘I’m out here to work, mind, to hold this wretched country by force. I’m not a missionary or a Labour Member or a vague sentimental sympathetic literary man. I’m just a servant of the government…We’re not pleasant in India, and we don’t intend to be pleasant. We’ve something more important to do.”’ (Ronny to his mother)

When they enter the cave, the servants and villagers pile in behind them, making Mrs. Moore feel faint and claustrophobic. The stench in the cave and the masses of people – together with the terrifying echo – cause her to panic. When she emerges from the cave, she refuses to enter any more caves.

The Incident

Aziz and Miss Quested leave Mrs. Moore behind to explore the other caves. Together with an Indian guide, they climb up to one of the main caves. As they walk, Miss Quested asks Aziz about his family. At first, he’s happy to answer, but when she asks if he has several wives, he is seriously affronted. He disappears into the entrance of a nearby cave to smoke a cigarette and collect himself. Miss Quested, unaware that she has offended him, follows at a leisurely pace and wanders into a cave. When Aziz re-emerges, he finds the guide alone. Aziz asks him which cave Miss Quested is in, but the guide only points vaguely towards the many entrances. They shout her name, but no reply comes.

Aziz’s “friends thought him most unwise to mix himself up with English ladies and warned him to take every precaution against unpunctuality. Consequently he spent the previous night at the station.”

Aziz hears a car arrive and looks down to see Miss Quested talking to its passengers. Aziz heads back toward the camp where he has left Mrs. Moore and the other servants. Something catches his eye at the entrance of one of the caves – Miss Quested’s binoculars, with the leather strap broken. He picks them up and continues down to the camp. To his delight, Fielding and Godbole have arrived, having gotten a lift from Miss Derek. However, neither Miss Derek nor Miss Quested are anywhere to be seen. Shortly after, Miss Derek’s chauffeur arrives to tell the group that the two ladies are on their way back to Chandrapore. This sudden departure concerns Fielding. He quizzes Aziz as to how and why Miss Quested had left, but Aziz maintains that they parted on good terms and that he had seen Miss Quested get into the car with Miss Derek.

The Accusation

When Aziz and Fielding arrive back in Chandrapore, police inspector Mr. Haq is waiting for Aziz. Miss Quested has accused him of sexually assaulting her in the cave. Fielding immediately goes to speak to the officials – but without success. District Superintendent of Police Mr. McBryde explains that Miss Quested claims that Aziz had followed her into a cave and tried to assault her. She had fought him off with her field glasses, breaking the strap, and had escaped. The police find the field glasses in Aziz’s pocket.

“The echo in a Marabar cave is…entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof.”

News of the incident spreads like wildfire, and the British community is outraged. Only Fielding believes that Aziz is innocent – an attitude that earns him the wrath of his compatriots. For them, the incident confirms their worst fears and prejudices. The mood turns borderline hysterical, and accusations against Aziz become increasingly worse. At a club meeting, Major Callendar claims that Aziz planned the assault meticulously. He even suggests that Aziz bribed Godbole to ensure that Fielding would be late for the train. Fielding refuses to rise to the bait, but the situation escalates when Ronny arrives. Everyone gets to their feet to show their solidarity – apart from Fielding, who wants to make it clear that he still considers Aziz to be innocent. Affronted and furious, Turton orders him to apologize, but Fielding refuses. Turton asks him to leave the club. Fielding starts planning a defense strategy together with Hamidullah, Mahmoud Ali – who is an attorney – and the Nawab Bahadur. They engage the famous anti-British barrister Amritrao to take on Aziz’s case.

Mrs. Moore’s Embitterment

Mrs. Moore returns from the Marabar Caves a changed woman: now ill-tempered and morbid. She doesn’t believe Aziz is guilty, and Ronny is glad when he gets her a last-minute berth on the next steamer back to England. Miss Quested is still a nervous wreck. She starts doubting herself, but when she tries to speak to Ronny about her misgivings, he rudely dismisses her concerns. For him, the case is clear-cut and Aziz’s guilt proven. Miss Quested is too weak and confused to insist.

The Trial

The mood in Chandrapore is charged. People are demonstrating in front of the courthouse and the British get ready for potential violence. Because of Ronny’s involvement in the case, the Indian Mr. Das is leading the proceedings. The British are certain that he will rule in their favor, as he is Ronny’s subordinate. In the courtroom, the British, with Callendar leading them, try to take charge of the proceedings, yet surprisingly, Das doesn’t play along. When calm is restored, Miss Quested comes up to testify. As she starts to tell her side of the story, her mind goes back to the day at the caves. When McBryde asks her the crucial question of whether Aziz followed her into the caves, she hesitates and finally replies that he didn’t. To the consternation of the British, she acquits Aziz and withdraws the charges against him.

Consequences

Riots start in Chandrapore, and Mrs. Moore – the impartial and absent third party in the incident at the caves – becomes a legend among the Indians and a symbol of their victory. With shouts of “Esmiss Esmoor,” they celebrate in the streets. The British community ostracizes Miss Quested as they feel she has betrayed them. She seeks refuge in Fielding’s college, where he allows her to stay while he is away. Fielding, who has started to appreciate her stubbornness and honesty, tries to persuade Aziz to forgive Miss Quested and not claim damages. Their friendship suffers, in particular when Aziz starts to believe rumors that Fielding and Miss Quested are having an affair. When the Indians hear that Mrs. Moore has died on her journey home, they consider this Ronny’s punishment by the gods. Ronny suppresses his feelings of guilt and focuses on keeping order in Chandrapore. A marriage to Miss Quested is now out of the question. Miss Quested returns to England. Shortly after, Fielding sets off to England as well. Aziz convinces himself that Fielding has followed Miss Quested to England to marry her and only persuaded him not to claim damages against her because of this.

Two Years Pass

Aziz has become the chief doctor to the Maharajah of Mau through his connection to Godbole, who is now Minister of Education in Mau. After Fielding left, Aziz decided that he didn’t want to have anything to do anymore with the British in general – and Fielding in particular. Aziz refuses to read and reply to Fielding’s letters. When Fielding arrives one day in Mau, Aziz remains aloof and distant. Even when he discovers that Fielding has married Mrs. Moore’s daughter Stella, and not Miss Quested, he doesn’t soften immediately. He still resents Fielding’s closeness to Miss Quested. However, he doesn’t manage to keep up this attitude for long, and they return to their former familiarity. Still, Aziz’s political attitude has changed, and he now dreams of independence for India. Only then, he believes, can he and Fielding truly be friends.

About the Text

Structure and Style

A Passage to India is split into three parts. The first part, “Mosque,” introduces the characters, their background stories and the divided British–Indian society of Chandrapore. In the second part, “Caves,” the attempt to bridge the gap between the two cultures results in a catastrophe. The third part, “Temple,” moves the story to a neutral location, the Brahman state of Mau. The omniscient third-person narrator gives the reader insight into the thoughts of the main characters. This allows the reader to gain an understanding of their personalities and motivation. Forster was careful to paint a balanced picture of his characters and the two communities and not to favor one view over the other. His writing style is evocative and light, and he manages to create moods that are tangible and true-to-life without indulging in long descriptions of landscapes or metaphysical train of thoughts. There is a lot of dialogue, and each character has his or her own distinctive voice.

Interpretation

  • The novel presents a bleak picture of the Anglo-Indian relationship. The plot is peppered with misunderstandings, mistakes and ambiguities. The cultural differences between the Indian and the European mind – one more emotional, the other more rational – seems insurmountable.
  • A Passage to India is a critique of British colonialism and the Brits’ judgmental and arrogant attitude toward the people they rule. Forster experienced this first-hand during his trips to India.
  • Central to the story is the motif of goodwill. Forster found the Christian command of “loving your neighbor as yourself” to be unrealistic and misleading. He considered it more important that people meet each other with respect and integrity – for example, with goodwill. In this sense, A Passage to India is a tragedy: Aziz’s attempt at goodwill toward the British, represented in his offer to show Miss Quested the “real India,” culminates in a catastrophe.
  • Forster’s bleak pessimism also becomes apparent in his treatment of faith and religion. None of the three religions represented in the novel is able to offer something that goes beyond the here and now. This view is exemplified in the figure of Mrs. Moore: The visit to the Marabar Caves leaves her struggling with the limitations of language, the futility of life and the concept of a benevolent god. In contrast, it leads the Indian community to worship her as a god-like figure, projecting their hopes and ideals onto her.
  • The relationship between Fielding and Aziz can be read as subliminally homoerotic. Some think that Forster based the character of Aziz on the Indian nobleman Syed Ross Masood, whom Forster taught Latin and for whom he had deep, unrequited feelings. Aziz is an Urdu word for “lover.” Fielding and Aziz’s easy and lively friendship stands in stark contrast to the often quite labored and restrained male-female relationships in the novel.

Historical Background

A “Carrot and Stick” Approach

British colonial rule in India lasted from around 1858 to 1947. Before that, the British East India Company, with military force and its monopoly on trade on its side, had controlled the Indian subcontinent. When Forster first visited India in 1912, the country had already been under British rule for 55 years.

However, change was on the horizon. Fewer and fewer Indians were prepared to remain under foreign rule. India’s mostly Hindu National Congress and the Islamic League had joined forces in order to gain independence from Britain, and their influence was getting stronger. The British looked at this development with concern as a large part of their economy was dependent on trade with India. In addition, a military need existed: There were threats of armed conflict with countries such as Germany and Japan. When World War I broke out in 1914, some 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought alongside the allied forces. In return, India hoped for if not full independence, at least extensive concessions. These didn’t materialize. While the Government of India Act of 1919 granted India some autonomy, Britain – weakened by the war – couldn’t afford to lose this important colony. In addition, the Rowlatt Act, which was essentially a continuation of martial law, allowed the government to use utmost severity when dealing with troublemakers. This approach caused huge damage to British moral authority and spurred the popularity of Mahatma Gandhi. He became the leading figure of India’s independence movement due to his personal, spiritual and political integrity and called Indians to join in civil disobedience.

Development

Forster dedicated A Passage to India to the Indian nobleman Syed Ross Masood. Forster was Masood’s Latin teacher, and Forster was in love with him. Unfortunately, Masood didn’t return his feelings. Because of Masood, Forster went on his first trip to India in 1912. Overwhelmed by the mysterious atmosphere of the subcontinent, he started writing A Passage to India. The inspiration for the fictitious Chandrapore was the Bengali city of Bankipur. During his travels, Forster visited the famous Barabar Caves, on which he modeled the Marabar caves in his novel. Shortly after, the war broke out and Forster stopped working on the novel for almost a decade. He only started again after his second trip to India in 1921. By then, his tone had become darker and he had lost the optimism of the first draft. Different events in India contributed directly to the plot, for example, the attack on a British missionary by an indigenous mob. Many British considered the massacre at Amritsar, where British generals ordered soldiers to shoot people at a peaceful demonstration, a justified retaliation. Forster’s personal resentment of the situation in India prevented him for a long time from taking on the removed and neutral position of an author. It was only when he returned home that he managed to overcome his inner resentment and finish the novel.

Reviews and Legacy

A Passage to India was published in 1924 and became an instant hit. The press celebrated Forster’s novel as a masterpiece. His pessimism regarding the future of the British Empire reflected the zeitgeist of people in Britain. Brits in India were less enthusiastic. They sensed that the end of colonial rule was in sight, but the more precarious their situation became, the more they clung to their idea of cultural and racial superiority. While the British in India reacted with animosity to Forster’s novel, the Indian population loved it. Indians gained renewed confidence from the fact that a renowned British author had publicly sided with them. However, Forster himself had no interest in taking sides. He was severely disillusioned by the conflict between rulers and the ruled. After finishing A Passage to India, he had so little empathy left for the characters in his novels that he gave up writing altogether and became a literary critic and broadcaster. A Passage to India was adapted as a play in 1960, but Forster proved to be immune to the lure of Hollywood. It was not until 1984, 14 years after his death, that A Passage to India was turned into a film directed by David Lean and featuring Judy Davis, James Fox and Sir Alec Guinness.

About the Author

Edward Morgan Forster was born on January 1, 1879, in London. His father died early, and he grew up in the sole care of his mother. The sensitive Forster had a tough time with his schoolmates and escaped into the world of literature. It wasn’t until he started studying the classics at King’s College, Cambridge, that he began forming friendships. Sadly, many of these suffered from misunderstandings due to Forster’s homosexual tendencies. After finishing his studies, he traveled in Europe with his mother. This experience inspired his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, published in 1905. Further novels followed, including A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End (1910). During the 1910s and 1920s, he was a member of the legendary Bloomsbury Group. In 1907, he met the Indian nobleman Syed Ross Masood and fell in love with him. Forster’s feelings were unrequited, but he refused to give up. In 1912, Forster visited Masood in India. It was during this trip that he started A Passage to India, though he didn’t finished the novel until 10 years later after his second visit to the country as the private secretary of the Maharajah of Dewas. A Passage to India was to be Forster’s last novel, and it won him several prizes. After its publication, he went on to become a literary critic and successful broadcaster on BBC Radio. He continued to live with his mother until her death in 1945. In 1946, Forster became an Honorary Fellow at King’s College, which allowed him to live there without any obligation to teach during the last 24 years of his life. As a staunch democrat, he turned down a knighthood but was made a Companion of Honour in 1953. Only his closest friends knew about Forster’s homosexuality, and his homoerotic novel Maurice wasn’t published until 1971, one year after he died of a stroke at age 91 in Coventry.


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