Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1191
Dr. Aziz: Muslim surgeon working under Major Callendar
Hamidullah: Muslim, prominent Chandrapore barrister
Mahmoud Ali: Muslim lawyer, a troublemaker
Mohammed Latif: Hamidullah’s relative and hanger-on
Major Callendar: English, the civil surgeon
Mrs. Moore: older Englishwoman visiting India, mother of Ronny
Ronny Heaslop: English, the city magistrate
Miss Adela Quested: young Englishwoman visiting India
Mr. Turton: English civil servant, the collector
Mrs. Turton: his wife
Cyril Fielding: Principal of Government College at Chandrapore
There is a description of the town of Chandrapore and its tri-partite division into Indian, Eurasian, and English sections. The larger setting dominates: the river Ganges, vegetation, the sky and the sun, and, 20 miles to the south, the Marabar Hills and their fabled caves.
In Chapter II, Aziz and Mahmoud Ali gather at Hamidullah’s house and discuss the topic of friendship between Indians and the English. Hamidullah takes Aziz into the purdah quarters to see his wife, who raises the question of whether Aziz will marry again. When they finally sit down to dinner, they are interrupted by a servant who bears a note summoning Aziz to the bungalow of Major Callendar. Aziz reluctantly sets out. When he reaches the bungalow, the Major is not at home and Aziz’s tonga is commandeered by the Major’s wife and her friend Mrs. Lesley. Aziz begins to walk back, stopping off in a mosque at the edge of the civil station, where he thinks of Persian poetry and encounters Mrs. Moore. After his initial anger, they begin a pleasant conversation, interrupted by an angry outburst in which Aziz complains about the way Major Callendar and his wife treat him. He escorts Mrs. Moore back to the Club, and explains to her that Indians are not allowed inside.
Chapter III is set in the Club, where Mrs. Moore is greeted by Adela Quested. The performance of Cousin Kate is ending. The Anglo-Indians begin to talk about the “real India.” Someone passing by (Fielding), suggests: “Try seeing Indians.” Most of the women find this idea outlandish, and begin to talk of the need to maintain a distance from the natives. Mr. Turton offers to arrange a social meeting with Indians for Mrs. Moore. Mr. and Mrs. Turton depart; so do Ronny Heaslop, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore, who tells her son about her encounter in the mosque. Heaslop is disturbed, and lectures his mother about mingling with the natives. They pause by the luminous Ganges. At home, Mrs. Moore and her son discuss Aziz’s motives. Heaslop agrees not to mention Aziz’s conversation in the mosque to Major Callendar. In return, he asks Mrs. Moore not to speak of it to Miss Quested, who is in India to decide whether or not to marry him.
The first chapter of the novel creates a large canvas that emphasizes the overwhelming power of nature—the river Ganges, the creeping vegetation, the sky and distance beyond stars, and the far hills with their suggestion of mysterious caves. By concentrating entirely on the natural background without depicting a single human figure, it is suggested that human life is relatively puny and ephemeral.
The next subject is human social arrangements and the mutual distrust and misunderstandings that arise within relatively closed societies. The focus shifts to a particular human social arrangement—the social life of Muslims in Chandrapore. Among themselves, they seem affectionate and convivial, yet when they discuss the English, the gulf that divides the two groups becomes evident. Instead of complaining about the discrimination in rank and pay scale, as we might expect, they are troubled by the denial of friendship and social intercourse. It is clear from the Muslims’ conversation that when the English come to live in India, they quickly learn that they have the right, or the duty, to snub even a Cambridge-educated Indian lawyer like Hamidullah.
Women occupy a particular place in each group. Hamidullah invites Aziz into the purdah quarters to visit his wife, Begum Hamidullah. Among the Muslims, the women live in separate quarters and are only seen by visitors when the male head of the household issues an invitation.
In some ways, Anglo-Indian social life is quite different. Mrs. Lesley and Mrs. Turton, unescorted by their husbands, commandeer a tonga and drive off to the Club, where men and women mingle freely and drink together. The women express their opinions and enforce social conformity as fiercely as the men.
Anglo-Indian men have high-sounding titles like chief magistrate, controller, and chief surgeon. They are the heads of departments, and even highly qualified Indians who work there are subordinate in rank and salary. These Indians are barred from the Club, the center of social life in the Anglo-Indian civil station at Chandrapore; they may only enter the gardens.
Yet the two groups are forced into an acute awareness of each other. While the Muslims seem to long wistfully for greater contact and even friendship, the majority of the Anglo-Indians are determined to maintain a wide social gulf. They are convinced that they understand the Indians and seem always to believe the worst of them. Each group is suspicious of the others’ motives.
One of the novel’s most important themes, the importance of human sensitivity, is introduced during the conversation between Aziz and Mrs. Moore. Aziz tells Mrs. Moore that she knows what others feel. In this, he maintains, she is an Oriental. The contrast is between the “typical” Anglo-Indian insensitive analytical approach and the “typical” Oriental sensitivity and responsiveness. Yet within each group, there will be exceptions. This emphasis on sensitivity to other’s feelings—or lack of it—will recur in many other scenes.
Potential tensions between conformist and nonconformist Anglo-Indians are suggested when an enigmatic figure appears briefly at the Club. This is Fielding, who becomes the protagonist of the novel. His heretical suggestion (“Try meeting Indians”) runs directly counter to the prevailing opinion of the others at the Club. He is thus already something of an outsider, one who defies group opinion and is therefore considered eccentric or unacceptable. In contrast, Ronny Heaslop is doing his best to conform to his responsibilities within Anglo-Indian society, although he is not entirely convinced that its values are correct. His attempt to rebuke Mrs. Moore for her excursion to the mosque provides an example of the way social controls are exercised in order to produce uniform attitudes and behavior.
The appearance of the wasp at the end of Chapter III briefly returns us to the world of nature, this time in miniature. The novelist introduces an ironic note here, when Mrs. Moore says naively, “Pretty wasp.” Since wasps are famed for fierceness rather than beauty, this suggests that Mrs. Moore may have some unpleasant surprises ahead of her. Mrs. Moore notes that this is not an English wasp—and Forster remarks that in India, insects and animals do not distinguish between trees and houses, finding both an outgrowth of the eternal jungle. Once again, we are reminded of the world of nature that surrounds and dwarfs all social groupings. The chapter ends with a foreshadowing of things to come, the word “uneasiness.”
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