A Passage to India

by E. M. Forster

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The depiction of racism between the British and Indians in A Passage to India


The depiction of racism in A Passage to India highlights the tension and prejudice between the British colonizers and the Indian population. The British exhibit a sense of superiority and condescension, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. This racial divide is a central theme, illustrating the broader societal and cultural rifts of the colonial era.

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How is racism depicted in A Passage to India?

The entire novel is basically a portrayal of the racist nature of the British Raj and the uncomfortable (to put it mildly) situation in which Indian people, including the most highly educated ones, found themselves in relation to the British colonials before the Subcontinent became independent. One crucial sequence of events in the book perhaps illustrates better than any other the (at the time) seemingly unsolvable racial conflict and the power dynamic that causes it.

Dr. Aziz has gone out of his way to be overly respectful and accommodating to the British people with whom he associates, in spite of the open mistrust of him shown in different instances. It is as if his ultimate aim is to prove himself "worthy" of the British. Yet in spite of this, the expedition with Miss Quested to the Marabar Caves goes horribly wrong and Aziz is falsely accused of sexually assaulting her.

Though he is acquitted, and though Dr. Aziz's friend Fielding has supported him during the trial, he sees that Fielding nevertheless seems to stand in solidarity with Miss Quested after it is over. It is as if race has trumped everything else, including Fielding's realization that Miss Quested has nearly destroyed Aziz's life with her false charges.

In David Lean's film version, Dr. Aziz's reaction to Fielding is especially striking. Fielding approaches him in friendship and puts his hands on Aziz's shoulders, but Aziz now looks askance at him, with disgust even. It is as if Dr. Aziz now believes a white man can never genuinely befriend him.

The story, however, leaves this an open question. Is there actually a true reconciliation between Aziz and Fielding? We cannot tell. A recurrent theme in fiction dealing with colonial India—seen also in George Orwell's Burmese Days and Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown—is that individual friendships may seem to exist between Europeans and Indians but are often disrupted or destroyed by latent or unconscious racism on the part of even liberal white men.

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Does A Passage to India suggest the Indians also have strong "racism" towards the British?

Any conquered people will feel bitterness and resentment toward the conquerers.  This is true as far back into history as you can go--the Saxons disliked the Normans, the black slaves feared and hated the white southern plantation owners in the US, the Indians disliked and distrusted the British. 

While the British tend to have a consdescending attitude, much of the misunderstanding in this novel is due to a lack of complete education and understanding of the culture.  The Indians did not fully understand the Brits and their culture, and the opposite is also true.  Because of this, mistakes in ettiquette are made and feelings are hurt even more--sometimes without the offending party's knowledge. 

It is common is Asia for people to tell you they will meet you somewhere and then not show up.  To them, it is rude to say "No" to a friend.  So, they say "yes" and ditch you.  In the West, the opposite is true.  If you can't go, tell me, but don't leave me hanging. 

Cultural differences like this make up much of the mistakes and disasters in A Passage to India--take the cave situation for instance.  The change in Aziz is also relative to this theory as he was at the beginning of the novel perhaps the most open to friendly relations with the British and ends up being very bitter toward them.

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