97. A PASSAGE TO INDIA
A long, long time ago in a classroom tucked away in the then semi-forested area of Alexandra Rd at a JC called St. Andrew’s, I was introduced to a brilliant piece of literature that on first reading, I dismissed as another pompous, stereotypical piece of work from an early 20th Century British writer.
I also, before I realised the author’s pure sense of genius, was determined to dismiss it as just another pain of a book I had to memorise quotes from to get through my A Level Literature course with flying colours.
But like a cloudy, mysterious fog that unravels the treasures it conceals from the naked human eye, EM Forster’s novel “A Passage to India” with it’s bold and unrelenting truths is a book I still acquire a lot of wisdom from, even till today.
The book tells of the misadventures of four people, an Indian Muslim doctor, Dr Aziz, his colonialist friend Cyril Fielding, Cyril’s fiancee, Adele Quested and Mrs Moore who inextricably find themselves linked via unusual situations and experiences with each other during the height of the British Raj era.
Without insulting my reader’s intelligence with a Clifford’s notes version of the story, I’m just going to jump right in to say why the book is still as relevant today about its insights to the vast and chaotic, yet fascinating country of India as it was when it was first published in 1924.
During the utterly confusing and rather idiosyncratic sequences of events that see the protagonist, Dr Aziz having to fight stereotypes of the day or even the other characters fighting their own internal conflicts, “A Passage to India” cleverly highlights on so many levels how these events are just a microcosm of a larger picture, that is, the sheer idiosyncrasies of India and even Life itself.
Let me share with you an example: One of the book’s many themes is the ‘muddle’ or conflicting nature of India itself where the old and traditional face squarely against the new, organised and planned and how all those perceptions are again shattered via the unpredictability of the culture, juxtapositions of opposites, its people and traditions.
Like Mrs Moore and Adele Quested, who were jolted quite badly by the culture shock of the country upon arrival, India never fails to do that to me too.
On a recent trip to Mumbai, I realised how acute EM Forster was in portraying a country that never fails to throw extreme situations or experiences into each other. It’s like having someone splat cake on your face on purpose quite unexpectedly or something along those lines without bothering to give you a towel to wipe it all off your face after that.
How the two varying opposites of EVERYTHING imaginable in India from economics to social divisions to something as basic as city cleanliness (or lack thereof) can sit comfortably side by side in happy yin-yang harmony is just beyond me.
How the modern and affluent buildings are nestled right next to a run-down tea-shack with customers happy and content to drink over a stinking, rubbish clogged drain is not only a concept that is hard to grasp; it’s unsettling and darn right annoying. Hence the confusion and ‘the muddle’.
I mean here is India, basking in it’s glory of being the second most powerful economic engine in Asia (after China) running at a projected 8.5% horse-powered growth rate with impressive improvements in purchasing power and yet the percentage of people living at or below the poverty line is still 25% of it’s population! I mean, do you see what I’m getting at here?!
EM Forster’s continuous use of the concept of ‘muddling’ in his book isn’t just through the novel’s plot points but also through the occasionally warped and slightly deluded characters, with Mrs Moore being a clear example of that.
He also, if you notice, took great care to strike a distinction between the ideas of “muddle” and “mystery” in the novel. “Muddle” has connotations of dangerous and disorienting disorder, whereas “mystery” suggests a mystical, orderly plan by a spiritual force that is greater than man. Even the condescending character of Cyril Fielding, who acts as Forster’s primary mouthpiece in the novel, admits that India is a “muddle” to him.
That’s because, like Cyril’s perception of the country, India doesn’t make sense and while your mind tries to tell itself how so many basic improvements can be made to what one sees and hears in India, the fact is, like that splat cake, India just stares right at you in the face as it is, baring her ugliness and beauty all at the same time and you know what? There’s absolutely nothing your first world, developed industrial mind and heart can do anything about it. It just IS.
Another thought in the book that I’ve carried about with me in my own relationship with India is the idea that all the things that exist in it are unified somehow despite the glaring, outrageous contrasts. The main protagonist, a Muslim, is comfortable being friends with an oddball Hindu professor just as he is with a couple of naive, uneducated Brits who just so happen to be Christians.
Hmmmm….if I didn’t know any better, it kinda signifies the so-called multi-religious backdrop of India that has been one of it’s core strengths and yet one of its core weaknesses as well.
Forster’s ideas of everything in Life being one despite the differences is certainly idealistic but India seems to have pulled it off albeit in an uncomfortable way; a way that Mrs Moore and her future daughter-in-law, Adele Quested seem to have reluctantly had to accept after their journey to the caves.
Ah yes, the infamous cave incident that is the highlight of the novel. Back when I was learning (ok, ok, more like plodding through) the book, the significance of the cave incident didn’t really hit me. I merely had an intellectual, academic, spoonfed understanding of what and how the caves had affected Adele Quested and later Mrs Moore.
But upon having travelled to the country a couple of times, I now truly understand, well in my own way of course, what the caves in the book symbolised. They were simply a metaphor for India herself. (Now give yourself an A+ if you figured that before I even mentioned it).
All her glory and depth, her darkness and ugliness and all her emptiness is captured in that cave. The experiences of fear, terror and confusion of Adele Quested as she was stranded in the caves and trying to make sense of where she was amongst all the darkness could be the exact same experiences a first-time stranger to the country would have.
Within the caves lay all the beauty and horror or Life which serves itself up as a mirror to one’s own glaring weaknesses.
I admit, when faced with India (or splat by it), I am overwhelmed with a mix of so many emotions. I am moved by the pleas of a slum child begging for food, appalled by the despicable standards of public hygiene through it’s dirty streets and people spitting chewed beetle nut remnants on the road with no care for cleanliness, amazed by the intimidating waves of the Arabian Sea that gush onto it’s Western shores and all it’s other natural sceneries, comforted by the delish food I am nourished with through every meal and angered by the injustice of how the wealthy of India treat their poor and unfortunate.
And with these emotions, one not only realises how many complex feelings a human can have at the same time but you also realise how much you have to forgive yourself and India for it. And when you forgive, you open your mind to a whole load of other possibilities in India.
I am convinced after much travels that no other country in this world can do this to me.
And I believe EM Forster himself grasped these paradoxical concepts of India and its dichotomy of truths to put it into an incredible book.
“A Passage to India” isn’t just merely a literary milestone; it is a guide – a work that has to be read and appreciated by anyone wanting to venture into India. For after understanding it, one hopes one can understand the true heart of India: the true heart of Life itself.
The book “A Passage to India” is available from Penguin Books and is available in the classics section of most good bookstores.
Posted on August 22, 2010, in Literature & Books, Personal, Travel and tagged A Passage to India, Classic novels about India, Classic novels of the early 20 Century, EM Forster, EM Forster novels, India and the book A Passage to India, India experience, India travel, Mumbai, Novels about India, Personal Travel to India. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.