Monday, September 08, 2008 • 12:00 AM Post a Comment

Can We Connect? Some Reflections on E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (Part I)

posted by Martin Newhouse

Margaret greeted her [husband] with peculiar tenderness on the morrow. Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire. . . .Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

--E.M. Forster, Howard's End.

I first read E.M. Forster's novel A Passage to India in 1970, when I was 21 years old, during the summer after my graduation from college. The novel had an immediate and powerful impact upon me. Specifically, it led me to an intensive study at the time of Hinduism and Buddhism, including Zen Buddhism. It did not lead me to study Islam although, when I recently reread the novel, I realized with a shock that the main Indian character in the novel, Dr. Aziz, is not Hindu, but Moslem. Somehow, time had erased this significant fact from my memory. This was probably because, as I recalled the book, Dr. Aziz was simply an Indian and, therefore, logically became in my memory a Hindu. Of course, when Forster wrote the novel in the early 1920s, Dr. Aziz would have been an Indian--the partition between Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan was more than twenty years in the future.

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London in 1879 and lived until June, 1970, dying coincidentally in the year when I first read his work. Between 1905 and 1910, he wrote four novels that assured his place as one of the preeminent British novelists of the 20th century--Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room With a View (1908), and Howard's End (1910). Fourteen years and a world war intervened between the last of these, Howard's End, and A Passage to India, which was published to general acclaim in 1924. Since them, A Passage to India has become one of Forster's best known and probably most widely read work.

One reason for the popularity of this work is, I think, that it has the vast subcontinent of India as its canvas, and, more particularity, India before the First World War, when the British Empire seemed strong and England's control over the Indians appeared relatively secure. Dealing on one level with British rule in India, A Passage to India may appear to address more momentous questions than his other works. Also, unlike his other novels, it deals with the exotic and mysterious Orient, as the East was then called, and the book's depiction of Moslems and Hindus and their respective religions, cultures, and customs, whether completely accurate or not, are in and of themselves fascinating. They certainly were to me over thirty years ago when I first encountered the work.

In fact, despite its much vaster geographic and cultural canvas, A Passage to India, is concerned in a very profound sense with the same basic concern underlying Forster's other great novels, namely that of the relationships between and among, and within, people and, more particularly, our seeming inability to overcome that which separates us in order to bring about the flowering of that which unites us. "Only connect the prose and the passion, "the motto and theme of Forster's previous novel, Howard's End, is writ very large in his story of the sub-continent. Thus, A Passage to India amplifies to an even greater extent the great divisions that afflict the human raceplayed out in perhaps the world's oldest multi-racial, multi-cultural country. Further, it points out that these divisions are not easily healed, not because of some malevolent or evil force, but often because of our own sincere and well-meaning actions.

A great distinction of Forster's work is that in each of his novels his protagonist's struggles are neither heavy nor somber. Forster's touch is light, often gently humorous, and full of irony. I would argue that his greatest strength is his comic seriousnesswhen it comes to his comic and ironic manner, Forster writes in the tradition of Fielding, Austen, Dickens, James, and even Shakespeare.

What is irony? In my own experience, this is a concept that we all think we know, yet are usually hard put to define. I find that often in Forster's work his use of irony matches one dictionary definition of the term as meaning an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. In particular, Forster confronts us with the incongruity between our automatic assumptions and what is really happening.

A good example of this is in the conversation between Mrs. Moore and her son, Ronny. Mrs. Moore--perhaps the major character in the novel--has traveled to India with her son's fiance, Miss Adela Quested. Her son, Ronny, is an English magistrate in the Indian city of Chandrapore. The plot of the novel is driven by Ms. Quested's and Mrs. Moore's desire to see the real India, a desire that leads to tragic--yet illuminating--consequences. The conversation that I would like to quote between Mrs. Moore and her son occurs after a disastrous party at which the English and Indians were brought together in an attempt to bridge the two cultures. The conversation starts with Ronny asking Mrs. Moore essentially how Ms. Quested is doing--how she likes India.

" . .but it's much more the Anglo-Indians themselves who are likely to get on Adela's nerves. She doesn't think they behave pleasantly to Indians, you see."

"What did I tell you?" he exclaimed, losing his gentle manner. "I knew it last week. Oh, how like a woman, to worry over a side-issue!"

She forgot about Adela in her surprise. "A side-issue, a side-issue?"she repeated. "How can it be that?"

"We're not out here for the purpose of behaving pleasantly!"

"What do you mean?"

"What I say. We're out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them's my sentiments. India isn't a drawing-room."

"Your sentiments are those of a god," she said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

Trying to recover his temper, he said," India likes gods."

"And Englishmen like posing as gods."

"There's no point in all this. Here we are, and we're going to stop, and the country's got to put up with us, gods or no gods. Oh look here," he broke out, rather pathetically, "what do you and Adela want me to do? Go against my class, against all the people I respect and admire out here? Lose such power as I have for doing good in this country because my behaviour isn't pleasant? You neither of you understand what work is, or you'ld never talk such eyewash. I hate talking like this, but one must occasionally. It's morbidly sensitive to go on as Adela and you do. I noticed you both at the club to-day--after Burra Sahib had been at all that trouble to amuse you. I am 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; it's the profession you wanted me to choose myself, and that's that. We're not pleasant in India, and we don't intend to be pleasant. We've something more important to do."

He spoke sincerely. Every day he worked hard in the court trying to decide which of two untrue accounts was the less untrue, trying to dispense justice fearlessly, to protect the weak against the less weak, the incoherent against the plausible, surrounded by lies and flattery. That morning he had convicted a railway clerk of over-charging pilgrims for their tickets, and a Pathan of attempted rape. He expected no gratitude, no recognition for this, and both clerk and Pathan might appeal, bribe their witnesses more efficiently in the interval, and get their sentences reversed. It was his duty. But he did expect sympathy from his own people, and except from new-comers he obtained it. . . .

Thus, Forster presents for us the irony of the situation of certain members of the English ruling class in India: they are the rulers, enjoying immense privileges, with power over millions, yet those like Ronny appear to derive no joy from this, consumed as they are by the high seriousness of their self-perceived task. And there is another level of irony here, too, that of the Indians themselves, who are presented in the novel as wishing the English to be gone, but at the same time as very likely not able to solve their own quarrels without the outside help!

Or, to put it another way, in A Passage to India it becomes abundantly clear that, not only do the English not understand what makes Indians tick--either Hindu or Moslem Indians--but the Hindu or Moslem Indians do not understand the English. And neither the Hindus nor the Moslems understand each other. In each case, the cultural reality of each is a closed book to the other. (A minor, but telling illustration of this is Dr. Aziz's observation at one point that the drumming he hears must be Hindu because its rhythm is, perhaps instinctively, uncongenial to him.)

As one confronts this lack of understanding throughout the novel, one becomes aware of the central problem that Forster is identifying for us. He named it specifically in Howard's End, when he describes Margaret Schlegel's inability to get her husband to understand the need to connect the prose and the passion as caused by his obtuseness. As Forster explains succinctly, "He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said."

The ramifications of the almost universal human failing that Forster labels as obtuseness, that is, the inability to notice things, both in the pages of A Passsage to India and, more generally, for our own times will be explored in the second part of this essay.

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