Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230
The punkah-wallah: a beautiful Untouchable who works the courthouse fan
Mr. Das: Hindu judge presiding over the trial, Heaslop’s assistant
Adela is now staying with the Turtons. Ronny continues to support her faithfully, yet she asks herself if she is capable of loving anyone. Fearing that she will break down under cross-examination, she tells the Turtons that her echo has come back.
There are signs of unrest on the way to the court, and they hear further reports about it. The Anglo-Indians tend to blame Fielding. Major Callendar issues another brutal tirade against these “buck niggers,” during which he refers mockingly to the disfigured face of Nureddin, now in the hospital after the accident. Mrs. Turton chimes in, calling the men weak and saying that the Indians should be made to crawl.
The case is called. The first person Adela notices is the humblest, a strong and beautiful Untouchable who pulls the cord of the hanging fan. She is impressed by the punkah-wallah’s aloofness.
McBryde opens the case for the prosecution. His manner implies that Aziz is guilty and the trial only a formality. Describing the prisoner as a man of loose life, he deploringly remarks that darker races are physically attracted by lighter races, but not the other way around. An Indian spectator asks, “Even when the lady is so uglier than the gentleman?” He is ejected from the courtroom.
Miss Derek comforts Miss Quested, who is upset by the comment. Major Callendar demands that she be seated on the platform. Her companions come up with her, leaving Fielding as the only European in the main body of the hall.
Looking timidly around the courtroom, Miss Quested notices Aziz and wonders if she could have made a mistake. Mahmoud Ali requests that Aziz, too be seated on the platform, and is snubbed by Mr. Das. Then Mr. Amritrao rises to object to the presence of so many extraneous Europeans on the platform. Mr. Das cringes, but requests everyone but Miss Quested to step down. Only Heaslop supports him in this; the others grumble but descend.
McBryde continues his speech, referring to Fielding, among others, as the “prisoner’s dupes.” He insists on charging Aziz with premeditation and concludes by calling him vicious and degenerate. Mahmoud Ali, in a fit of rage, accuses McBryde of smuggling Mrs. Moore out of the country so that she wouldn’t testify in favor of Aziz. He calls the trial a farce and leaves the courtroom.
Outside, the Indians take up the chant of Esmiss Esmoor—their version of Mrs. Moore—repeating it like a mantra. Mr. Amritrao apologizes for Mahmoud Ali, but reiterates the charge that Mrs. Moore has been smuggled out of the country. Now it is time for Adela to give her evidence.
As she begins to tell the story of the expedition, she relives it. She answers McBryde smoothly until he asks a leading question implying that Aziz followed her into a cave she had first entered alone. She asks for time to reply, then falteringly admits that she is not sure. McBryde unsuccessfully attempts to make her agree. Finally, in a low voice, she says that she has made a mistake.
McBryde tries to recall her to the accusation she made on her deposition, but Mr. Das addresses Miss Quested directly. Sensing disaster, Major Callendar wants to stop the proceedings on medical grounds. Miss Quested holds firm and insists on withdrawing the charge. Mr. Das declares the prisoner released without prejudice. In the courtyard, pandemonium reigns; the English are protected by their servants; Aziz faints in Hamidullah’s arms.
The trial scene provides the dramatic climax of the novel. Like all trials, it has the structure of a confrontation between two opposite sides. The groups that have previously been talking behind each others’ backs are now face-to-face. At first, the power of the British Raj seems undeniable. Even the Hindu judge, Mr. Das, who is Heaslop’s assistant, is cowed by the rank and self-assurance of the Anglo-Indians.
There are dramatic confrontations: the advance of the Anglo-Indians onto the platform, Mahmoud Ali’s sensational ravings and departure, Amritrao’s request that those not involved in the case be asked to step down. At least part of the structure of justice holds, when Mr. Das requests them to do so and Heaslop backs him up. Still, when McBryde begins to lead Miss Quested through her testimony, Aziz’s conviction seems inevitable.
All this changes when Miss Quested withdraws her accusation. Suddenly, she finds herself able to withstand the social pressure placed on her and to throw off her childish dependence. Once again, she is the direct and honest person of the earlier chapters. Fielding notices ahead of time that something is happening.
She understands that her public recantation is not enough; there will still be a need for confession and atonement. These are words that belong to religious language, not to the language of the law courts. They indicate that what has happened to her is in the nature of an epiphany, a sudden opening that lifts her awareness to a higher level. Before giving testimony, she has defined “coming through all right” in terms of keeping her spiritual dignity. In fact, this is what happens, although it occurs in a way she does not foresee at the time.
The most suggestive symbol in this chapter is seemingly irrelevant to the central business of the trial. Perhaps the humblest figure in the courtroom is the punkah-wallah, an Untouchable who pulls the cord on the hanging fan. He never speaks, but his presence incarnates the presence of a mass of people Forster has previously reminded us of: those who have no rank or standing but who represent the spirit of India. He is described, not coincidentally, as divinely beautiful, and his image presides over the chapter like a voiceless god. On another level, Miss Quested’s acute awareness of the punkah-wallah’s body both emphasizes her susceptibility to male beauty and suggests another association, between sexuality and spirituality.
The other presiding deity of the trial is Esmiss Esmoor. In her absence, Mrs. Moore has been transformed into a Hindu goddess and her name into a popular religious chant. It is the memory of her kindness that the Indians honor. They believe that she wanted to save Aziz and blame Heaslop for spiriting her away. There is only a small bit of truth in this belief. Still, it is enough for the Indians, who have begun to worship her much transformed memory. Their chanting floats into the courtroom. Once again, Forster supplies a musical or rhythmical background that alters the atmosphere of a scene.
It could be said that this chant replaces the evil echo and subconsciously reminds Adela of truth. Yet, the reasons for Miss Quested’s recantation are more than psychological. The presence of something supernatural in the figure of the punkah-wallah and in the “magic” chanting of the masses outside pervades the atmosphere of the courtroom. Miss Quested calls it “queer,” yet in the midst of the chanting she assures her friends that she feels better. She will come through all right, she says. Like Professor Godbole’s song to Krishna, the chant affects even those who do not share the belief that it expresses, even those who are unaware of its effects.
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