A Passage to India

by E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India examines racial and cultural tensions during the British occupation of India


A Passage to India explores the racial and cultural tensions that arise during the British occupation of India. The novel highlights the misunderstandings and prejudices between the British colonizers and the Indian population, emphasizing the complexities and conflicts inherent in colonial rule.

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How does A Passage to India examine racial misunderstanding?

This great book clearly comments on the massive gulf separating the English from the Indians, and the way that even those who try to bridge that gulf find it impossible, such as Fielding in his friendship with Aziz. The novel contains many examples of how the English consistently misunderstand those around them, often in a way that makes reading about them uncomfortable for the 21st century reader. This is evident perhaps most clearly in the Bridge Party that the Turtons throw in order to try and "bridge the gulf between East and West." However, it merely serves to highlight how completely separate the Indians and the English are, and attempts made to bridge that gulf only serve to underline this yet further. For example, when Adela tries to talk to the Indian women, she is told, very firmly, by Mrs Turton:

You're superior to them, anyway. Don't forget that. You're superior to every one in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they're on an equality.

Such arrogance is further foregrounded when Mrs Turton responds sarcastically to the information that the Indian women speak English. Again and again in this novel, characters try to reach out to bridge the gulf, but the failure of these efforts is a result of racial misunderstanding, as the arrogance of the English prevents any relationship to be developed with the Indians. Forster thus exposes the problems of colonialism and how it created an inequality of power that proved impossible to overcome.  

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How does "A Passage to India" examine racial misunderstanding, cultural hypocrisies and racial discrimination?

A Passage to India examines these things by portraying the East and the West differently. The West is seen as the educated, civil society. The East is portrayed as a romantic, unchanging other. Forester does this to emphasize how the societies are viewed differently.

One lens to view this book with is Edward Said's Orientalism. It says that the West views the East in an unchanging way, and it views the Orient as having one culture (even though it is made up of thousands). My favorite example is the microwave dinner brand "Asian Sensations". The food is all called Asian despite being cuisine from Thailand, China, and Japan.

One way to answer this question is to figure out who Forester gives identity to.

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How does A Passage to India examine the cultural hypocrisies of the British in India?

This novel acts as a powerful investigation into the reality behind the myth of the "white man's burden," which is the phrase that Kipling used to describe the vital need that Englishmen had to live and rule in places such as India. The core belief behind such acts was that Indians needed the English in order to develop them and improve their lot in life. The cultural hypocrisy that is exposed in this novel is that the English treat the Indians with contempt and therefore as being incapable of improving themselves. This is something that is highlighted by contrasting the views of Mr and Mrs Turton, who throw the disastrous Bridge Party in order to try and "bridge the gulf between East and West." During this party Mrs Turton reveals a stereotypical view of English arrogance by stating to Mrs Moore and Adela Quested that they are socially superior to almost every Indian in the country. Mr Turton, however, is not able to share his wife's contempt:

He replied in an odd, sad, voice, "I don't hate them, I don't know why," and he didn't hate them; for if he did, he would have had to condemn his own career as a bad investment.

For Mr. Turton, if he did hate them, he would have had to have acknowledged that his whole career based around "improving the native" was fake and that he has wasted his life. The cultural hypocrisy that is evident in this novel therefore is expressed through the contempt of the Indians shown by so many of the British characters, which in turn reveals that their very reason for being in India has no basis. The colonial project is revealed to be something of a sham, based on pretence and illusion.

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Why is A Passage to India a novel about cultural differences?

A Passage to India is rife with cultural differences, which occur within the Indian community between the Muslims and the Hindus and, even more markedly, between both Muslims and Hindus and the British colonists. All the British characters fundamentally misunderstand Aziz, both in his generosity and his subsequent anger. The crudest misunderstanding comes from Ronny, who remarks to Adela:

Aziz was exquisitely dressed, from tie-pin to spats, but he had forgotten his back collar-stud, and there you have the Indian all over: inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race.

The reader already knows that Aziz pulled out his back collar-stud to give to Fielding upon finding out that his friend had stamped on his last one. Ronny's smug assumption that he knows all about the Indians and their culture is repeatedly shown to be mistaken. Even Fielding, who is unusual in having Indian friends and replies to Adela's ambition to "see the real India" with the curt suggestion "try seeing Indians," does not really understand the culture in which he lives. He tells Aziz that his emotions are never in proportion, and Aziz hotly replies:

"Is emotion a sack of potatoes, so much the pound, to be measured out? Am I a machine? I shall be told I can use up my emotions by using them, next."

“I should have thought you could. It sounds common sense. You can’t eat your cake and have it, even in the world of the spirit.”

Aziz is disgusted by Fielding's occidental prudence. His idea of friendship is infinite generosity. Fielding, he says, sees all human interaction as

give and take, or give and return, which is disgusting, and we had better all leap over this parapet and kill ourselves.

This extravagance of emotion is something that none of the British characters ever appreciate. Fielding sees it as embarrassing, and melodramatic while the other characters, particularly Ronny and the Turtons, see it as proof of insincerity, giving rise to the distrust between the two cultures which continually threatens to overwhelm any attempt at understanding.

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How does A Passage to India examine the racial discrimination during the British occupation of India?

Forster in this famous novel presents the reader with a typical view of how the British viewed the Indians that they ruled over in the colonial Raj. It is important to identify how Forster develops this view. He uses two outsiders to India in the form of Mrs Moore and Adela Quested to expose the breathtaking arrogance and stereotypes that lie at the very core of British interactions with the Indians they live alongside. Note for example what Ronny says to his mother to describe the "native":

It's the educated native's latest dodge.. But whether the native swaggers or cringes, there's always something behind every remark he makes, always something, and if nothing else he's trying to increase his izzat—in plain Anglo-Saxon, to score. Of course there are exceptions.

Ronny therefore argues that those "natives" like Hamidullah and Aziz who are educated are only trying to increase their own wealth, and there is a careful and calculating motive behind every relationship between and Indian and an Englishman, if Ronny is to be believed. Of course, with this statement, Ronny argues that educated Indians do not at all have any ideas of trying to gain independence or improve their lot in life. He dismisses them all as self-seeking, greedy individuals. Ronny shows similar arrogance later on when he sees that Aziz is dressed impeccably except for his collar-stud, and derides the "slackness" and "inattention to detail" of the native, even though Aziz had actually leant his collar-stud to Fielding because he had forgotten it. The novel therefore presents the reader with many different views of racial discrimination concerning the way that the British viewed the Indians during this period of history.

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