What kind of picture does Forster present of British rule in India?
A Passage to India was written between 1912 and 1921, at a time when the British domination in India started to be strongly questioned. (India did not, however, achieve its independence until 1949, after more than thirty years from the novel’s publication). The debates on colonization found their way into the novel and went on to constitute its narrative core. Much of the praise or criticism that the novel has garnered since its publication has focused on the representation of British colonialism in India. Anglo-Indians felt caricatured by the book and, as Paul Scott recalled when reassessing A Passage to India in the 1960s, “threw copies overboard from the P. and O. into the Red Sea.” As Scott went on, the novel had a clear impact on society as “it gave vivid dramatic evidence to justify the direction of a swing that had already begun” (Scott 15). The swing that Scott talks about is that against colonialism and colonization.
A Passage to India documents the racial oppression institutionalized by the British Empire and the cultural and social misunderstandings that create a deep gulf between the Anglo-Indian colonizers and the Indian colonized. Colonial rule is indicted as the institution that renders impossible any type of significant relationship between colonizer and colonized. However, several passages in the novel also suggest that Forster’s position towards the policies of the British Empire is more ambiguous and that A Passage to India is not completely critical of colonialism. On the contrary, Forster’s attitude toward British domination is marked by as much criticism as by the notion that Indians are not yet capable of self-rule. Taking the character of Fielding as a mouth-piece for the author, for example, Ahmad M. S. Abu Baker has argued that “Forster could not help but feel the ‘gulf’ that separates him from Indians” (68). Fielding and Forster share the same position: they criticize colonization, but, at the same time, they are in a position of privilege thanks to it. While they both realize that the colonial model is quickly becoming untenable, they are unwilling to offer Indian self-rule as a viable option and alternative. A Passage to India is anti-imperial in its refutation of Western colonialism as an agent of global civilization: the novel clearly rejects the idea that the West had a civilizing mission to carry out in the East. Yet, the novel also conceptualizes India as the site of mystery and enchantment, of chaos and magic, thus perpetrating the Western tradition of viewing colonial subjects as irremediably “other” and different. As Edward Said has pointed out, Forster’s novel represents India as a vast and incomprehensible country, a chaotic agglomerate of races and sects, which, in the end, is unable to form a political entity “as a nation contending for sovereignty with Britain” (Said 246).
Baker, Abu Ahmad. “Rethinking Identity: The Colonizer in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.” Nebula 3.2-3 (September 2006) 68-85.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993.
Scott, Paul. “How Well Have They Worn?”, The Times, 6 January 1966. 15.