Theme of Race-relationship and Colonial Encounter in E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India"

Part I—Mosque
Part II—Caves
Part III—Temple

Every novel deals with relationships-emotional, intellectual and spiritual-and Forster’s A Passage to India is no exception. Yet, it is unique, and its uniqueness lies in the fact that the novel is concerned less with individual relationship than with race-relationship, and that it subsumes the entire gamut of human interests, ranging from the political and the ethnic to the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. Sometimes it is also assumed as a clash between two fundamentally different cultures, those of East and West. Although Forster himself declared that ‘the book is not really about politics’ (three countries), leading many critics to opine that the book is about man trying to understand the universe, that is, a book on ontology and cosmogony, one must also bear in mind Forester’s later declaration that ‘the political side was an aspect I wanted to express’. Being himself a liberal who lived in India and was upset at the arrogant and patronizing attitude of the British bureaucracy in Indian colony, Forster decided to present through fiction a colonial encounter which would not merely be restricted to the strictly political but extend to the effective and the cerebral the sexual and spiritual.

 ‘We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit; the better it is for the human race’. Thus spoke Cecil Rhodes. The British in India obviously accepted this as a guiding principle, and consequently ruled the natives with a hauteur that would be befitting of a savage race of slaves being controlled by merciless mercenaries. Ronny Heaslop, the European magistrate in Chandrpore, declared that he was not here on a mission of charity, but to work, to hold this wretched country, by force’. Again, Early in the book Ronny Heaslop remarks that “No one can even begin to think of knowing this country until he has been in it twenty years.” When Adela Quested rebukes him for his attitudes, he replies that “India isn't home” meaning that it is not England. Mrs.  Moore,  Adela, and Mr. Fielding are three English characters who challenge this accepted attitude. His mother Mrs.Moore notes that ‘one touch of regret____ not the canny substitute, but the true regret from the heart_______ would have made him a, different man, and the elsewhere pointed out, the class of men who go out to rule in India are ones ‘with well developed bodies, fairly developed minds and undeveloped hearts’ (Abinger Harvest). The district collector Mr.Turton, personifies the same British snobbish altitude which delights in snubbing the natives. Mc.Bryde even constructs the sociological formula that all people south of the latitude thirty are intrinsically evil. He there by reduced humanity to Geography, passion to topography and human being to either black or white what Forster called ‘flat characters’ in Aspects of the Novel____ rather than complex and unpredictable multidimensional entities.

But there are a few who would strive to proceed beyond a mere colonial relationship. The first of these is Mrs.Moore who is enamored of the mystic India and the second is Adela Quested whose attitude is mere rational and practical being confined to the world of the senses. While Mrs.Moore’s quest is for religious and supra-rational contact with the Indians. Mrs. Quested’s is for a sensuous and intellectual exploration of India Both of them arrived in India and attempt to enter into a rapport with the Indians. When the ‘bridge party’__ an artificial celebration designed to bring the Europeans and Indians together____ fails due to the condescending attitude of the British, Mrs.Moore realizes that the approach must be individual rather than en masse. She becomes acquainted with Aziz and her emotional and spiritual affinity, with the Indian leads Aziz to blurt out, ‘you are an oriental’. Godbole, a Hindu philosopher, too becomes a part of this new found friendship, since his pantheistic beliefs is similar to Mrs.Moore’s. Fielding, a liberal intellectual and the principal of Chandrapore college, a man free from all ties towards the Indians, becomes involved with these four Indians, though in her case the relationship is casual rather than a caring or essential.  

Yet, any relationship between two alien races is essentially a fragile one subject to sudden ruptures or dis-harmonies. In A Passage to India, too amity is followed by enmity, rapture by rupture. Their attempt to become even more intimate through a picnic at the Maravar Caves breeds disaster. Fielding and Godbole fail to reach the caves,  Mrs.Moore feels her idealism vanish when confronted with the soutless ou-boum echo of the caves, and Adela has a sudden hallucination of being sexually assaulted by Aziz. Aziz is arrested on the charge of assaulting a European lady, the moment he arrives at Chandrapore, and although Mrs.Moore and Fielding plead for him, it is of no avail. For the first time in the Novel, the British and the Indians are face to face with each other, for the entire affair snowballs into a confrontation of the races. Individuals relationship are here of no consequence in the face of overwhelming political concerns. The episode brings in the herd instincts or the mob- instincts among both the races, and what Forster is perhaps trying to emphasize is that when a member of one community considers another not as a unique individual but as part of a pernicious race, all communion such as Mrs.Moore’s and even the more prosaic communication such as that of Mr. Fielding breaks down. Even when Aziz is acquitted at the end of the trial, he is suspicious of Fielding for having spoken to Adella.

Towards the end of the Novel there is an approach at a spiritual level, though even here the novelist symbolically hints at the fact that no true friendship is possible until the two races are on a footing of the equality. In the title state of ‘Mall’ Godbole’s mystic vision which visualizes the unity of all beings, is seen to be the same as Mrs.Moore’s. The two phrases related to Mrs.Moore____ ‘you are an oriental’ and ‘God is love’_____ which were uttered during the period of initial friendship are echoed again towords the end. During the Gokul Ashtami festival, the two boats of Aziz and Fielding overturn in the shallow water, as if in a baptismal right. And yet as both Aziz points and the Indian sky echoes, friendship is possible but ‘Not yet, not here’. True friendship is possible only when the rulers and the ruled the civilized and the uncivilized, the exploiters and the exploited, fair skinned and the dark-complexioned.  

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert, 
      2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's  "Heat and Dust"