By Chet Yarbrough
A Passage to India
By E. M. Forster
Narrated by Sam Dastor
Considered by some to be one of the best novels ever written, “A Passage to India” exposes human fragility. The story is beautifully narrated by Sam Dastor but the poetry of E. M. Forster’s writing shines best in its reading.
Published in 1924, “A Passage to India” is a primer on colonialism, ethnocentrism, and discrimination.
Forster shows human nature is immutable and omnipresent, a force of good and evil.
Forster introduces Dr. Aziz, a Muslim Indian physician, Cyril Fielding, a British school master who teaches at a college for Indians, Mrs. Moore, the mother of a British magistrate governing India, and Adela Quested, a school teacher considering engagement to the British magistrate. There are many more characters, but these four characters exemplify the best and worst of being human. They carry the principle thread of life and what it means to be human.
History is replete with stories of nations, governments, leaders, and corporations that believe they know best for those they dominate. Because self-interest (a lauded and reviled quality of human beings) pervades society, it distorts nations’, governments’, and corporations’ actions and decisions.
In the early the 20th century, the British govern India’s people by imposing their own vision of what is best for India. The British leadership is convinced that their culture is superior to India’s; not unlike America’s belief that Anglo/American culture is superior to American Indian culture in centuries past and present.
When Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore ask to meet local Indians, a British city collector arranges a party for newcomers to India to meet locals.
The party is depicted as a crashing bore by British wives who gather on one side of the dance floor, demean Indian dress, habit, and intelligence. On the other side of the floor, Indian wives wish they were somewhere else. The British city collector mingles with Indian leaders as a duty of office. The city collector feels he offers high recognition; first, by inviting Indian guests and then by crossing the floor to say hello.
Ethnocentrism is clearly pictured in Forster’s book. The newcomers to India, Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested, feel they are not seeing the real India at the party. They suggest a visit to an Indian household.
Cyril Fielding, an admirer of Indian culture, suggests an outing be arranged for Mrs. Moore, Ms. Quested, and Dr. Aziz. Fielding offers the idea of a visit to ancient caves outside of town.
Arrangements are made for the next day. In exploring the caves, Ms. Quested and Dr. Aziz are separated from Mrs. Moore. Ms. Quested enters a cave by herself; she feints and thinks she has been assaulted. Dr. Aziz is arrested.
In the course of a trial for the alleged assault, discrimination is on display. Ms. Quested is faced with great pressure from her British compatriots to verify details of the assault. She realizes she has made a false accusation and recants. Dr. Aziz is vindicated.
The ugliness of colonialism (cultural domination), ethnocentrism, and discrimination is exemplified in Forster’s beautifully crafted story.
Thankfully, the characters of Mr. Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Ms. Quested give a sliver of hope for mankind’s redemption, a hope for cultural respect and truth. Though cultures around the world are different, honesty and respect level cultural differences, and reveal how human justice is universal.